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Forest Park Campus

Clark Porter -- from delinquent to Forest Park graduate to probation officer

Clark Porter

Reprinted with permission from St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- Bill McClellan column Feb. 19, 2012

Clark Porter was the sixth of his mother's seven children. For the most part, they had different fathers. When Clark was 4, his mom decided the kids were too much. Most went into foster care. Clark went to live with his paternal grandmother.

Even at 4, he was wild and impulsive. When he started school, he was in constant trouble. By the time he was 8, his grandmother could not handle him. He went into foster care.

He continued to get into trouble. He bounced from one foster home to another. He picked up a juvenile conviction for assault.

When he was 15, he walked away from a group home and began living on the streets. He was a thief and a hustler. Mostly, he was into shoplifting, but he also committed a few street robberies.

He soon tired of the little stuff. He wanted a big score. A letter-carrier told him and another guy that there was a lot of money at post offices.

Porter, who was 17, and the other guy, who was 30, decided to rob a downtown post office, on Fourth Street. They went into the post office, and Porter pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of a gym bag. There was only about $100 in the cash drawer, so they robbed customers as they came in. They ended up getting away with $632 and some stamps.

Porter was wearing a cap from a carwash, and when postal inspectors went to the carwash, only one employee didn't have his cap. That was Porter's nephew.

Neither the crime nor the arrest made the newspaper, but Porter's trial did. That's because he got angry at a witness and threw a pitcher of water at him. The pitcher shattered against the jury box and doused some of the jurors.

The story in the newspaper was lighthearted. It began: "Most defendants on trial go out of their way to make a good impression on the jury. Then there's Clark Porter." The story noted that the jury deliberated for only five minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

Two months later, in January 1987, U.S. District Judge James Meredith sentenced Porter to 35 years in prison.

Because this was Porter's first adult conviction, he was eligible for parole after 12 years. But he was not a model prisoner, and his behavior earned him stints at a super-maximum security prison in Colorado, as well as at Marion in Illinois. Then he had a conversion. "I've got to find another way," he decided.

He had already earned his GED after taking the test on a bet. He began taking college classes.

He was released in September 2001. He had a support system in place. He had an aunt, one of his dad's sisters. He had a church, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. He took classes at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. He worked at night cleaning buildings, stripping and waxing floors. He reported regularly to the U.S. Probation Office for the Eastern District of Missouri.

One of his instructors at the community college took some of his writing to a dean at Washington University. After two years at the community college, Porter got a scholarship to Washington U. He earned a degree in psychology in 2006.

He then earned a master's degree in social work at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He had done volunteer work for Connection to Success, which has programs for ex-offenders. He decided to look for work in that field. He dropped off a résumé with Doug Burris, who heads the U.S. probation office for the Eastern District of Missouri.

"If you hear of anything," Porter said.

Burris hired him.

Porter is now the resource officer for the Probation office. It's his job to identify needs and connect the people under supervision with the resources they need to make the transition from prison. Sometimes it's classes of one sort or another. Sometimes it's a washing machine.

Porter said he doesn't hide his past, but he doesn't go out of his way to tell the people he's helping that he was once where they were. He said he doesn't try to set himself up as an example.

Earlier this month, I attended a program at the federal courthouse for 18 people who had been released from prison early because of the retroactive change in the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. Porter and probation officer Lisa White had developed a special program for the releasees. I attended the graduation from the program.

These are high-risk releasees. They're entering a tough economy, and a lot of them come from troubled backgrounds.

I noticed one young man holding a tie. He seemed mystified. Porter walked over to him, said something and then put the tie around the young man's neck and tied it for him.

Days later, I mentioned it to Porter. I asked if he had ever worn a tie before he went to prison. He shook his head.

Now he wears one every day when he goes to work at the federal courthouse. If you think about it, it's almost a miracle. 

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