Food by VICE

This Chicago Jail Farm Grows Tomatoes and Restaurant Cooks

The Sherriff’s Garden program at Cook County Jail allows nonviolent felons to maintain a two-acre farm, complete with a beehive, while preparing them to re-enter society as well as the job market.

by Sarah Freeman
Sep 24 2015, 6:00pm

Photos by Matthias Merges.

VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

Each day, David Cole wakes up at 7 AM for his three-hour commute to the affluent Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. He heads to Yusho, a Japanese restaurant owned by Charlie Trotter-trained chef Matthias Merges, where he prepares dishes like miso ramen and tempura eggplant.

But Cole is not a chef himself—he is a prep cook. It was only job he could secure after serving a year in prison for selling drugs to an undercover police officer. In a sea of refusals, Merges was the only one that would grant Cole, given his criminal record, a yes.

"My background screwed me. It was hard. People would look at me kind of funny and say they would call me back, but never would," Cole tells me. "It's hard coming from jail and trying to do something with your life, because no one will give you a chance."

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Photo by the author.

His experience at Yusho, however, was different. Cole underwent little more than an interview before he was put to work at the restaurant, thanks to the facts that he is a graduate of the Sherriff's Garden initiative at Cook County Jail. The program, active since 1993, allows nonviolent felons to maintain a two-acre farm, complete with a beehive, while preparing them to re-enter society as well as the job market. The produce grown there—beets, kale, peppers, and more—is sold at Daley Plaza Farmers market and to restaurants, including four owned by Merges.

For the past nine years, the program's deputy director, Kerry Wright, has overseen the garden and all of its participants, including Cole. "When I first met him, my immediate impression was that he wouldn't work out for the program," Wright says. "He was young, slightly intimidating looking, and with my experience, a lot of young guys here don't want to work at all. I was wrong."

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Photo by Matthias Merges.

In the garden, days last from 7 AM to noon and consist of sowing the beds and greenhouse, raising vegetables from seed to maturity, as well as weeding and harvesting. Since Wright oversees up to 30 inmates by herself—assisted only by a single officer—those who have been in the program the longest are assigned as foremen to teach the newer inmates, many of whom have never seen a head of kohlrabi, let alone know how to grow one. Certain inmates are selected for special jobs, such as beekeeping.

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Photo by Matthias Merges.

After Cole was assigned to the garden's now-defunct chicken coop, Wright saw changes in him. "Working with animals tends to do that to people. I remember [he] used to like to hand-feed the birds, making sure even the little guys didn't miss out on the food," she says.

Wright has seen former dog fighters tend to the chickens with their pit-bull-tattoo-covered arms. Three of them even swore off eating meat after spending time with the birds. "It teaches them nutrition and it teaches them compassion. Those are things that people should want in someone they are going to hire," she says.

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Photo by Matthias Merges.

There is no set curriculum or required length of participation in this program. Inmates, who volunteer and then fill out an application to be admitted, can be involved for as little as a few days or as long as a few months before they are either released or sentenced and moved to prison. When the latter happens, Wright passes along her contact information and the simple instruction to call her when the inmate gets out in order to be connected with an employer. She never hears from most of them—victims of the system or the street. The ones who do get in touch are passed along to John Vermiglio, the director of culinary operations at Merges's restaurant group.

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John Vermiglio. Photo by the author.

"I don't think I've turned anyone away that [Wright] sent," Vermiglio tells the current class during a visit to the garden. "I really don't care what the hell you did before. I don't even want to know what you did to get in here. It doesn't matter to me. It doesn't matter to anyone as long as we're all working on the same goal. If you show up, do your work, go home, and then show up the next day without getting thrown back into here, then I'm a happy man. I can teach you to do anything. You're out here gardening, and you probably had no idea how to do that before. I can teach you how to cook."

On his first day at Yusho, Cole learned basic knife skills, breaking him of the habit of hacking at food in favor of slicing it. Technical skills aren't required to get hired. In fact, Merges and Vermiglio prefer working with blank slates with positive attitudes. While this isn't Cole's first job in a kitchen—prior to his arrest, he worked as a prep cook in a nursing home—this is his first time handling high-caliber ingredients, from octopus for the robata grill to pigtails for ramen. He also prepares some of the produce from the garden—including tomatoes, peppers, and herbs—for use at the South Side restaurant.

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Photo by the author.

Unfortunately, the struggles for Cole didn't end when he put down the drugs and picked up a knife. Three weeks after his release from prison and three days into his new gig, his brother what shot in the neck and killed. But Cole still went to work the following day.

"There's a lot going on in my lift right now," he says. He struggles with thoughts of revenging his brother's death and the possibility of returning to dealing—a much more profitable job than his $10 an hour cook position. "I thank God just to have this job… It's keeping me out of a lot of trouble that I know I'd be in."

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Photo by Matthias Merges.

At the end of his six-to-eight-hour shift, he gets back on the bus for the three-hour commute home, where he enjoys spending time with his children and his girlfriend, especially after being away from them when he was in prison. Four months after his release, he's managed to stay on the right path and avoid the temptations of his old ways by focusing on work.

"Where he lives, he can't really go outside, otherwise he will be lured into the lifestyle again," Wright says. "So he now just goes to work, sees his kids, and stays inside. Seems like another type of prison, sadly."