CHICAGO — Within the walls of the Cook County Jail, there grows a garden where hope springs eternal in the days of summer.
Inmate and gardener Jammie Williams said it’s home away from home while he awaits trial for felony burglary.
“I love gardening,” Williams said. “I have been gardening all my life. It soothes me. It’s peaceful.”
The formal program name is the Sheriff’s Urban Farming Initiative.
“We got tomatoes, greens, beets. We got some flowers. We got some pumpkins,” Willaims said. “We got cherry trees. We got some herbs growing.”
Gardeners also tend to a bee colony.
Williams is one of 20 inmates at the jail who toil in the soil, undertaking an initiative that started in 2006.
While the Cook County Sheriff readily admits he is no farmer, Tom Dart is proud to say the program has grown in the number of crops and participants over the years.
“All of them will tell you A.) they love being out here,” Dart said. “There is a queue like you wouldn’t believe to get into the program.”
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Dart says while they are cultivating the crops, they are developing a healthy diet of self-esteem.
“They all talk about the therapeutic value of just being out here and working in a garden,” Dart added.
What is sewn at the garden is offered at Sopraffina Marketcaffe’s East Randolph restaurant and another under the Rosenthal Group Restaurants. Vice president of development Taryn Kelly says they are happy to buy the fresh crops the inmates are growing. While delicious, it’s also a program, Kelly says, that pays dividends on a societal level.
“If we can help them get outside, learn a new trade, maybe it’s a little therapeutic for them. There’s no downside in my mind,” Kelly said.
The garden variety goods are also sold once a week at the Daley Center, where inmates can show off their bountiful harvest.
“We’re bringing money in to sustain the program,” Dart said.
A day at the market also allows for interaction so gardeners can interact personally with customers.
“The public can see detainees who they would never interact with normally and see them in a different light and see that they are people who are no different than you and I,” Dart said.
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Several more months of work remain ahead of the season wrapping. But looking ahead, Wiliams hopes to depart Cook County Jail and monetize the work he’s done inside the nation’s third-largest jail.
“I plan on doing this as a little side job and maybe start a business doing this myself,” William said.
Until then, Williams says he will keep his head down and work to make his mother proud, calling her the angel on his shoulder that constantly reminds him to be nice and kind.
“That’s what she always tells me,” said Williams, who soon hopes to teach his daughter how to garden.