by Jian Ping
Cook County jail garden
I could see a group of detainees working in the garden fenced by tall barbed wire. They were weeding in the well-maintained garden, with a variety of vegetables, including tomatoes, okra, and green pepper. They moved freely, and a couple of security guards were watching them from a distance. Michael, an administrator in charge of the garden, greeted us, along with two colleagues. The vegetable plants looked small for the season and we soon learned that a recent hail had destroyed most of them.
I had never talked to a detainee or inmate before and hesitated for a while before I struck a conversation with one, with the encouragement of Sheriff Dart. Or rather by his example—he constantly stopped and talked to the detainees and thanked them for their work.
“I like working in the garden,” a black man told me. I wanted to know more about his situation, but couldn’t bring myself to ask.
Another section of the garden, with the maximum security building in the back
Michael told us the detainees working at the garden could eat the produce, but couldn’t take anything to their cells. Anyone violating the rule would lose the privilege of working at the garden.
It was a hot day. I could see the perspiration on the black detainee’s forehead. He used a hue to loosen the soil and appeared enjoying the outdoor work.
Another detainee went inside and came out with a cup of water for each of us.
“Thanks for your interest in our garden,” he said.
He was so polite and considerate. I wondered what he had done to end up in here.
The work in the garden was voluntary, and the participants, selective. The security for them was minimum compared to others. I would not have associated them with detainees/prisoners if it were not for the uniforms they were wearing.
We visited another garden at the Boot Camp. People at the Boot Camp aged from 17 to 35. They are non-violent offenders and are being trained on military disciplines and vocational skills. The vegetables here were planted in raised beds and looked much better. This garden was spared from the recent hail and it also received professional help from the Chicago Botanic Garden, thanks to a grant the Botanic Garden had received.
Judge Liu, Francis and Sheriff Dart
Judge Laura Liu joined us in the tour. She was there to see how the jail was run, saying she used to handle civil cases before and now with cases in transportation, her dealing had expanded to criminal cases, and she wanted to have a better understanding of the jail system. We talked to three young men working in the garden and learned about the success of the Boot Camp.
She was as impressed as we were by the Boot Camp programs.
We took the opportunity to visit part of the medium security jail with Judge Liu and the area for “receivable.” After scrutinized security check, we went through layers of doors, each time, entering one after the previous door was closed. The Superintendent of the division accompanied us. In one area, more than two dozen inmates were sitting in an open area, playing chess or chatting at tables and chairs that were all permanently fixed to the floor. I was surprised by the cleanness of the jail, thinking the condition was much better than that of the college dorm I lived in for four years in China!
As the superintendent was explaining to us the set up of the cells and schedules for the detainees, Sheriff Dart was busy talking with a group of detainees. I heard them telling the Sheriff their cases and asked him for help.
I observed Sheriff Dart from a distance and was touched by the same care and insincerity he demonstrated to these detainees. When we were ready to leave, Sheriff Dart asked the superintendent to get him a few people’s names, saying he’d look into their cases.
The most shocking sight of the day was the “receivable,” where offenders were delivered by the busloads. I watched the small and large cells filled by people, either waiting for their bond or being sent to different divisions based on the crimes they were accused of. Some of them were sitting, some lying on the concrete floor, and some putting their heads against the metal bars to look outside. They looked like caged animals.
Okra flourishes in the jail garden
Sheriff Dart said a new facility was being built and the condition would be much improved. I learned the Cook County jail had over 11,000 detainees, which meant over 30,000 meals a day, numerous bus rides to transport detainees to and from the courthouses, and to hospitals for treatments. Not to mention receiving hundreds of detainees’ visitors every day. I watched the detainees in yellow or orange outfits and listened to the color code that was used to classify them. Chills ran up from my spine and I couldn’t gauge it was from shock, fear, or empathy. Quite a few people behind the bars were drivers caught with DUI.
Each day, more than 250 people were dropped in and moved out of the “receiving” area. Underground pathways took them to where they needed to be.
I was still in shock when it was time to leave. I was surprised a few cells that were filled with people when we came in were already empty.
I wondered what a “typical” day would like for Sheriff Dart.
“I thought my life was chaotic,” I said to him.
Sheriff Dart laughed, the same hearty, contagious laugh. We shook hands again before saying goodbye. Looking at him, I felt an overwhelming surge of appreciation and respect for him and his team.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com or www.moraquest.com. Mulberry Child has been turned into a feature-length documentary film by award-winning director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.