Cook jail program offers veterans another chance
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It's been a long time since Robert Nathaniel has lived among so many military men.
Once a U.S. Marine, the 52-year-old is incarcerated at Cook County Jail in a special unit reserved especially for military veterans -- a unit jail officials say offers a second chance to individuals who have served our country.
Since his arrest on charges of driving under the influence, Nathaniel shares the tier with 38 other veterans, works in the jail laundry and plans for life after June 16, when he anticipates being released.
He'd like to resume his career as a mechanic and maybe reopen his Elgin automotive shop. He hopes that will be the last he sees of the sprawling Chicago compound at 26th Street and California Avenue.
If Nathaniel accomplishes those goals, much of the credit will rest with his participation in the special work and continuing education program for veterans that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and his staff established last July after noting the many veterans among the inmates.
"I'm painfully aware that a lot of people here are veterans of our armed services," said Dart, who believes their service has earned them special consideration, including more freedom and the chance to learn some skills.
These men "have done more than a lot of people," Dart said. "They've served their country and they deserve to be given a little bit more from all of us."
To that end, Cook County court detainees who are veterans, whose bail has been set at $100,000 or less and who are eligible for medium- or minimum- security units can be placed on a special tier with other veterans.
Its 39 current detainees represent every military branch. Most face drug and theft charges. Thirty-one of them work in the jail's laundry. Fifteen take English, math and computer classes offered through Roosevelt University, which has campuses in Chicago and Schaumburg. Substance abuse and psychological counseling is available and the participants get help from corrections officers, some of whom are veterans themselves, to access benefits and services available through the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Jail "isn't the happiest place to be," said Dart, but the veterans "are the happiest people in the place."
Several veterans gave it high marks, especially if they'd previously been jailed among the general jail population.
"There's no violence, no threats of violence. None of that is tolerated," said Johnie Hopkins, a U.S. Navy veteran from Elgin, who has been charged with theft.
Not having to deal with fights and gangs leaves time for self-examination, he said -- for detainees to figure out why they ended up here and what they must do so they never return.
"It's a more relaxed atmosphere," said Nathaniel. "You can concentrate on getting your life in order."
Naperville resident John Cicero, dean of the college of professional studies at Roosevelt University, oversees the veterans' educational program, consisting of math and English instruction, computer classes concentrating on managing a small business, and a lecture series addressing the challenges detainees face when they rejoin society.
"They're inquisitive. Their questions are good. A number are ready to go on with college," said Cicero, who also teaches the computer class.
"The intellectual challenge reinvigorates some of these guys," Cicero said.
A couple of the veterans enrolled at Roosevelt after they left the jail and several others are in the process of doing so, Cicero said.
"Clearly, they have some talent which they demonstrate in the classroom," he said. "My biggest concern is that they sustain the momentum they achieve in jail."
On average, veterans stay at the jail for between eight and 16 weeks, said Cicero. That poses a challenge.
"In that short amount of time, the best we can do is open up their eyes to other possibilities," he said. "If they see other possibilities, we've accomplished something."
For 38-year-old Emanuel Holdman, the classes offer a chance to succeed.
"We become better people," said Holdman, a Navy veteran who served in Iraq and expects to leave the jail in June.
Cook County Corrections Officer Derrick Shavers, a six-year Army veteran who has been with the sheriff's department for nine years, works closely with the detainees as their advocate inside the jail and their liaison with the VA.
"I'm in the trenches where I like to be," he said. "The higher-ups make the decisions. I'm here to give them guidance."
Shavers believes the program is working, based on the low rate of recidivism (which Shavers puts at less than 2 percent) among the 161 veterans who've participated so far. The detainees agree.
"The impetus here is on rehabilitation instead of warehousing," said Hopkins, who has lived on the tier for two months.
People lose more than time when they go to jail, he said. They suffer emotionally and financially, which makes it difficult for them to "hit the ground running" following their release.
The special training and support doesn't amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card, said Omar Israel, 42.
The veterans work hard and take direction well, said Cook County Sheriff's Department Superintendent David Gomez. They understand they have privileges not available to everyone.
"They're appreciative of being offered a second chance to obtain a skill and be treated with a level of respect," Gomez said.
Nearly a year in, the program is still in its infancy, said Shavers. "There are still a lot of things we have to implement."
Officials say that includes finding a way to track the detainees' progress after they are released. It might also include establishing a similar program for female veterans.
Along with job training and classes, living on the tier affords the vets a kind of camaraderie.
"We all share stories with each other," said Nathaniel, who served 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. "A lot of us have been through the same experience."
Perhaps more than anything, it gives detainees hope, an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and a chance at a better future.
Participation in the program can be a transformative experience that allows these men to rebuild their careers and their families, said Dart.
"It's a jump start," Nathaniel said.
The rest is up to them.
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