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Veggies Behind Bars

September 9, 2010

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune by Kevin Pang explains some of the process behind getting inmates at Cook County Jail to participate in the Sheriff’s gardening program that now sells to high-end local-food-loving restaurants. The approach of the article is compelling, with a focus on the program, the participant, the Chefs and the diner who all participate in this process. The sales to the restaurants help the program break-even financially, which I am sure help to justify its existence. The testimonies from the inmates who participate in the program veer much closer to a rehabilitation-oriented outcome than the punishment practices which our jail and prison systems are known for. It should not be so rare to read an article about incarceration where it seems like people are actually being helped, so kudos to Kevin Pang for writing it and for the garden program for finding a way to continue for 20 years in difficult conditions of the criminal justice system.

As Chicago prison reform activist Laurie Jo Reynolds likes to say, there is nothing more expensive you could do to a person than to cage them in a jail or prison. You could send them on a cruise, to college or through any kind of therapy and it would still be cheaper than putting them behind bars. The way incarceration works is not sustainable on a human or social level, as people’s lives are being taken and no attention on the inside or on the outside is being paid to rehabilitation or creating the socio-economic conditions for re-entry into society. The system is not sustainable on an economic level, as our states begin the challenging process of approving new budgets with record deficits. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the emerging food movements to do more bridge-building with state budget reformers, social programs and economic development initiatives to connect foods, rehabilitation and economic justice.

Here is an article from Planet about the first major prison garden program in San Francisco. It opens with a great quote from Nelson Mandela:

Nelson Mandela may have started it all when he was in prison—”A garden is one of the few things in prison that one could control,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Being a custodian of this patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”

Thanks to Jan Susler for passing the article along.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. LJ Reynolds permalink
    September 9, 2010 7:02 pm

    Illinois prisons (and all states actually) used to have huge inmate run farms and so prisoners could grow and eat their own food. We should have an event and let some of the formerly incarcerated prisoners talk about the experience of farming in prison. It is very inspiring to hear them describe it. They grew everything.

    They could also tell us how the food inside the prisons changed after all the farms were shut down. Their diets now are frightening. May prisoners say the food is so bad that they rely on commissary (which is all packaged food). Some say they never even see a fresh vegetable.

  2. Ryan permalink
    December 9, 2010 10:16 pm

    Thanks for illuminating this program! I love the quote from LJR.

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