On Probation
6:26 am
Thu October 4, 2012

Unlikely Secret Weapon: Former Felon Becomes Probation Worker

There are thousands of people on federal probation in the St. Louis area. And officials are always looking for ways to keep them from going back to prison, by creating new programs and hiring new people.

In the first of a two-part series on the federal probation office in the Eastern District, St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports that the office has an unlikely secret weapon.

The secret weapon is Clark Porter. He used to be known as a violent offender serving time at two of the country’s toughest prisons. Now, he’s known as a program support specialist with the U.S. Court of the Eastern District of Missouri. And he’s respected. Here’s how it happened:

The JeffVanderLou neighbor in St. Louis City is familiar to Clark Porter. It’s where he spent a chunk of his adolescence.

“What I used to do in this area, mostly, is hustle and hang out on the street corner,” recalls Porter as he stands on the corner of North Garrison and Sheridan Ave. “It used to be an area where all the winos and drug addicts and all the hustlers used to hang out.”

“Pangs of Reality”

Most of Clark’s childhood was spent in foster care. When he was 17-years-old, he committed a crime that would send him to prison for a very long time. He and a man he met at a local pool hall robbed the U.S. post Office on Fourth Street. Porter had a sawed off shot gun. He was arrested, tried as an adult and sentenced to a total of 35 years in federal prison. He spent 15 years at two “SuperMax” prisons where he violently assaulted other inmates.

“The hardest part of prison is when you get into year five,” says Porter. “That’s when you start hearing the door close. You get these pangs of reality and it’s like ‘wow I’ve got a 35 year sentence, I’m not going anywhere’.”

With five years left to serve, Porter came up a plan. He was going to get a job and he was going to go to school. And when he got out of prison, he didn’t mess around. He took classes at Forest Park community college, and then Washington University. And he did it while on probation. 

Clark Porter with family when he received his masters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Credit (via Federal Probation Office of Eastern District of Missouri)

Doug Burris, Chief Probation Officer of the Eastern District of Missouri, says he will never forget the first time he met Clark Porter, dressed in a cap and gown, on the morning of his graduation.

“I was so uplifted just from that without knowing how horrendously bad his background was,” said Burris. “The fact that we had someone that was on parole to us that had graduated from Washington University, a school that likely my SAT’s would not even let me get into.”

Something bold

Porter went on to get his master’s degree in social work at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He felt the system had failed him, so why not try to fix it? He worked some part time jobs during that time, but he wanted more. So he did something bold. He asked Burris for a job.

“I went on like several interviews and I didn’t get anywhere and I was at my whits end,” said Porter. “ And I had to go down there for something else, and I said I have my resumes with me, and I thought I’ll give him my resume and see what happens?”

“My initial reaction was I laughed,” recalled Burris. “You know, that’s the craziest idea you could ever come up with.”

Beyond Hope

These are the same people that put Clark Porter in prison. He applied for a job at the institution that recommended he be tried as an adult because they felt he was beyond hope.

Against what he thought was his better judgment, Burris let him go through the interview process. And when it became clear that Porter was the best candidate, Burris found himself in a precarious position. Before he could hire Porter, he had to ask then Chief Judge Carol Jackson for permission. And he feared her reaction.

Doug Burris (at left) and Clark Porter.
Credit (via Washington University in St. Louis)

“She’s either going to have me committed or throw me out of her office,” he remembers thinking as walking to Jackson’s office. “I was proposing that we hire a former violent felon who was prosecuted out of this district.”

But Judge Jackson didn’t throw Burris out of her office. She agreed.

“I called Clark in and said this has never been done anywhere else or anything, but Chief Judge Jackson has given me permission to offer you a position with the federal court,” said Burris. “And I remember his response was, he cried.”

It’s been nearly four years since Burris hired Porter. And Porter says it’s a big responsibility trying to be a role model for the ex-offenders he works with. And sometimes he feels like people are looking out of the corner of their eye waiting for him to mess up. But, he says it won’t happen.

Tomorrow, Julie Bierach will take a look at Clark Porter’s role in the federal probation office.

Follow Julie Bierach on Twitter: @jbierach