Veterans of Prison

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By Jesse Duthrie

Reverend Doctor James Cook, a Incarcerated Reintegration Specialist at Career Resources in Bridgeport, helps veterans coming home from prison find work, housing, and other services.

Cook served as a Marine from 1959 to 1963. Though not involved in actual combat, his experiences with the Corps allowed him to understand the mentality of the men he services today. After his four years with the Marine Corps, Dr. Cook hit the books hard. He holds six higher education degrees: an associate, two bachelors, two masters, and a doctorate in religious studies.

“What inspires me is my faith. I’m a Baptist pastor. I’ve had training. All this plays a part in shaping who you are. My doctorate is on hands-on ministry. Having grown up in insular Bridgeport, everybody was a Baptist. I began with the love of people and the care of people.”

Though his degrees are centered on religious studies and sociology, it was his Masters of Business Administration that taught Dr. Cook about the true inequality in America. He says, “I went [for my MBA] to try to help in community development, to find out how I could help the community. I also discovered that there are two Americas. There are those who are trained to become captains of industry and those who are trained to work for those captains.

“I began to see the two Americas and the disparity that was there. When I heard words like, ‘Your loyalty is not to your employee, not to your supplier. Your loyalty is to your stockholder,’ I was like, ‘Wow, they don’t care.’ And you see that kind of stuff playing out now, at least through the prism of which I see the world through.”

Once he finished his PhD, Dr. Cook moved on to become the Head Chaplain of Religious Affairs for the Department of Corrections in the state of Connecticut. Overseeing 21 different correctional facilities, he was tasked with overseeing 60 to 70 chaplains and providing services for the 19,000 men and women incarcerated in the state. This was no small feat; in the years that Dr. Cook served as the head chaplain of religious affairs, Connecticut’s incarceration rates skyrocketed to the highest in state history.

As the numbers rose, Dr. Cook began to see a pattern.

“A disproportionate number of veterans were coming into the correctional facilities,” he says, “and a large part of those were Vietnam veterans. It all came from the fact that as they came home, there were no ticker tape parades. There were also drugs that were readily available in Vietnam. So they came back and they had a lot of problems that they had to deal with. There wasn’t a lot of support for them.”

After his career with the Department of Corrections, he began his work with Career Resources on 350 Fairfield Avenue in downtown Bridgeport. If the address sounds familiar, that’s because it should. 350 Fairfield Avenue is the workplace for reentry employees like Stephanie Miller Urdang and Scott Widermann, people RELEASE frequently covers.

When I entered his office on an unusually warm day in early February, a tall, solid man was sitting square in a chair awaiting Dr. Cook. He looked forward, a thousand yard stare in his eyes, and when Dr. Cook entered the room he stood formally as he shook his hand. There was no doubt he was a military man.

Dr. Cook later explained to me that this man was a Marine Corps veteran who had been released from prison only a few weeks earlier. Now that this man was back from prison, he was facing a litany of issues. He couldn’t find work, affordable housing was near impossible to locate, and getting on his feet was a problem that he and any ex-offender, veteran or not, had to face.

Though they only exchanged a number of words, Dr. Cook was cool and calm. When the man left, he seemed pleased with what Dr. Cook had told him. When I asked how he helped, Dr. Cook told me that the man needed resources. In particular, the man needed to get his DD 2-14, a form that proves his military service. Outside of veterans with dishonorable discharges, Dr. Cook can work with any veteran to find the resources needed.

Once the man had gotten his DD-214, Dr. Cook explained how this man needed to apply for a VASH voucher, a special veterans housing voucher that helps veterans find and pay for subsidized housing.

He wasn’t getting passed by; he was being directed to the resources. Dr. Cook says, “We work with V.A. The V.A. has great resources. My job is also to try to connect the veterans with the resources that are available in the community.”

There’s nothing about this kind of work that indicates it’s streamlined. Veterans move from one office to the next to fill out paperwork or talk to somebody who directs them to another office where they may be passed around again. It’s a process, I deduce, of paperwork from both the V.A. and other government agencies that is both tedious and plentiful.

Today, men are returning from prison from the Vietnam era all the way up to the current war in the Middle East. I was surprised to learn a large number of veterans returning from prison aren’t from the modern war era. Most of the men served during the 1960s through the 1990s. Their long jail sentences and isolation from a rapidly changing society makes their challenges in finding suitable living even harder.

“When I was 67 I went out and decided I was going to look for a job, just to see if I could get one. I went down to IKEA. I got myself ready for the job, I told myself I needed to go talk to some of the HR people and shake their hands and look them in the eye. I went to IKEA and asked if I could talk to their HR person and they said there is no HR person. I asked what do you do to look for a job?  They told me to put it into the computer by the front of the store.”

These are the subtle differences all ex-offenders face after a long jail sentence. But there’s an added element of difficulty for men with a military mind frame that often learned skills suited for a battlefield, not an office. It’s Dr. Cook’s task to break through to them. He must teach them how to interact back with society after time spent in combat and jail.

On March 31 the Connecticut Veterans Project will be hosting a remembrance event for all Connecticut Vietnam veterans. In the crowd will be hundreds of Veterans, all of whom experienced their own challenges coming home from a violent and unpopular war. Some of these men may have a history of incarceration. It’s important that as we remember Connecticut’s veterans, we remember not only the service these men and women provided to us during war time but also the challenges they faced coming home.

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