Cook County Jail inmates learning to garden, acquiring social skills

FOX 32 NEWS - An increasing number of inmates at the Cook County Jail are getting the chance to see whether they've got a green thumb. They’ve planted gardens this spring, and the county is reaping the benefits.

“The chive, the kale, the tomato, the beets, I never heard of all these plants,” said inmate Eugene Dent.

Dent says growing up, he knew a little about gardening. But his current stint at the Cook County Jail has taught him a lot more.

“I like the chives, the onions right here, I know you can smell em. And the kale, the kale leaves, it's the hottest thing we have out here, it's the kale,” Dent said.

Dent's been jailed since January, unable to make bond on a shoplifting charge. This spring, he's been taking part in the jail's "urban farming initiative" which gives inmates the chance to learn some skills they can use when they’re released, including social skills.

“Some of us don't have families to call. You know, some of us don't have people outside in the world, we come here, and we have each other,” said inmate Manuel Urritia.

Urritia, whose doing a year for misdemeanor battery, says he spent months in jail just sitting on his bed reading, until getting the chance to work the farming initiative. Weather permitting, the inmates work outside for five hours a day, starting at 7:30 a.m.

“I just love the fact that we're not stuck inside the cell all day. We can come outside and get some fresh air,” Urritia said.

The produce and flowers grown here are sold to restaurants and also at the Daley Center farmer's market. The program once brought in $500 a year. It now brings in over $14k. Those dollars helped pay for a new greenhouse, where plants can be nurtured from seeds, so they don't have be purchased.

Sheriff Tom Dart wants the initiative to keep on growing

“To be honest with you, every green area here, I want to be planting something, and I want to be bringing money into this place,” Dart said.

Christine Bentley, a self-taught master gardener, supervises the inmates during their five-hour shifts in the garden. She says they've always been model prisoners.

“I never worry on my part, because we've become like family out here, and I look after them and they look after me,” Bentley said.

Bentley admits she's got mixed feelings when inmates complete their sentences; on the one hand, she's happy for the inmates, but she also hates to see them leave.

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