EAST HARTFORD, Conn.—Since Bonnie Jean Cook’s release on a rare grant of clemency, after 27 years in prison, she has been acclimating slowly to modern society with bingo games at her apartment building and outings to browse thrift stores.
Cook, convicted of murder in the shooting death of a pregnant woman in 1986 when her name was Bonnie Foreshaw, won early release in 2013 following a lengthy campaign by author Wally Lamb and others who felt she was treated too harshly by the criminal justice system. She argued she shot the woman by accident, a claim rejected by prosecutors.
Life on the outside brought a new set of challenges. How people cling to their cellphones, how information is easily available online and the way money looks have all thrown Cook for a loop.
“I hadn’t seen money since 1986,” she said, citing the new $20 bill as particularly jarring. “It looked like Monopoly money.”
In addition to being overwhelmed by new technology, she had to find doctors, obtain prescriptions for medications she received in prison, get a state identification card and find a home. She also legally changed her last name to Cook in an effort to leave behind some of her notoriety.
“Life is hard out here, too,” Cook, 68, said in an interview in her one-bedroom apartment in East Hartford, which is adorned with family photos and a stencil she did on a kitchen wall that says, “With God all things are possible.”
It would have been even more difficult, she says, without the help of family, including a granddaughter in Manchester whose family took her in when she was first released. She said the inmates at York Correctional Institution in Niantic leave prison with no cash and little, if any, information about programs that can help them. Prison officials say inmates are provided with a host of services preparing them for release.
Cook said she wants to find a way to help female inmates readjust to life on the outside.
“Most of them need help with mental health, drug abuse and physical abuse,” she said. “You see them come back (to prison) over and over again. Instead of trying to get them into a group home or something like that, you send them back to the street. Women in prison need help when they get out.”
She was sentenced to 45 years for the shooting death of Joyce Amos, whose fetus didn’t survive. She argued that she shot Amos by accident while defending herself against a man who was threatening her.
Lamb, who met Cook when he was teaching writing to inmates, and other supporters argued for years that she should have been convicted of manslaughter instead and freed years earlier. Despite objections by Amos’ family, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles granted her clemency in October 2013 — only the second time in a decade that the board had held a clemency hearing. Cook had been scheduled to get out of prison in 2017.
“I’m grateful for a second chance,” she said. “After all those years (in prison), I never lost faith. Even in my darkest days, I never lost faith that I would get out of there. I’m content. I’m very fortunate.”
Today, Cook lives with her therapy dog, a Yorkshire terrier named Bella. She wouldn’t discuss her need for therapy, but she has written about being abused as a child and as an adult. She also said she has back and knee problems.
She gets by on a small pension and Social Security, and she enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren. She is slowly adapting to technology. When her grandson gave her an iPhone, she didn’t know what to do with it. She has since learned to text and has her own Facebook account.
“In there, I was just existing,” she said about prison. “Now I feel like I’m living. … I thank God for that every day. I don’t take life for granted.”