Former criminal hopes to clean up his record by helping others

PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – Jay Cook is only a few weeks removed from what he expects will be his last stint in prison – which included a lawsuit settlement check from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

The surprise is how he’s spending the money.

“It’s not a lot,” Cook said, regarding the $1,000 he received from the ACLU lawsuit. “But it’s helping me feed a lot of people.”

Cook spends hours, at least, one day a week, making sandwiches for bag lunches. He then takes a bus to Burnside Park in Providence, where he gives the food away to military veterans and homeless people as part of what he calls Feed RI Homeless.

His criminal record is long; About a dozen stints since the 41-year-old was 18.

“I did the crimes. I paid the price for it. I’m just trying not to go back,” he said. “I broke into people’s houses. I’ve stolen vehicles. I’ve done everything. This is my best possible way to stay straight.”

He says while he was locked up he was often sticking up for fellow inmates, motivating him to do the same outside the razor wire.

“I was pretty much like a prison activist. Whenever I saw something wrong. I tried to help guys out and tried to right it,” he said. “I was actually thrown in SEG for reporting an assault on an inmate.”

The federal lawsuit was filed in 2009, claiming correctional officers harassed Cook after he complained about the prison’s mail policies. Cook has no hard feelings but also hopes he never has to deal with the guards again.

What he sees during his Sundays at Burnside makes him realize how much he can help.

“I had children out here the other day, coming up to me, asking for more popcorn,” he said. “Stuff like that is heartbreaking.”

He’s not doing it alone, getting help from a handful of sponsors including Central Avenue Bakery, 3 Flags Bakery, A Taste of Europe and Andella’s Boulevard Meats. But he knows even with help, his money won’t last without contributions to his GoFundMe page.

There is also a Facebook community page supporting Cook’s effort.

“I know I can make a difference with some help,” he said, as a line formed in front of his cardboard neon sign.

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