Fri October 5, 2012
Unlikely Secret Weapon: Probation Program Led By Former Felon
Clark Porter is a social worker at the Federal Probation Office in St. Louis. Once upon a time, he was a violent felon. But he turned his life around and is now helping ex-offenders on probation do the same.
In the second of a two-part series, St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports on a program Porter and a colleague created that’s keeping many ex-offenders out of prison.
A quick recap: When he was 17, Clark Porter was sentenced to 35 years in prison for robbing a St. Louis Post Office. He spent a total of 15 years in two “supermax” prisons. When he got out in 2001, he changed his life. He went to college and got a master’s degree in social work. He now works at the federal probation office in St. Louis.
"We can't save them all, but we save most."
Porter’s story is not much different than those of the men sitting in a room at the Eagleton Court House in St. Louis. The only difference is, these men have one foot back in prison. They’re in a program called Project Re-Direct because they’ve committed what Probation Officer Lisa White calls "technical violations."
“When we start with them, it’s a given they’re going back to prison," White says. "And when we finish, many of them won’t. Obviously, we can’t save them all; but we save most.”
White and Clark Porter created Project Re-Direct, an intense seven-month program that consists of community service, a job search and something called moral recognition therapy. White says it’s also a support group. They build people up.
"And a lot of these people are dealing with substance abuse, they're dealing with homelessness, they're dealing with, what we call, 'baby momma drama,'” White says.
Most of the ex-offenders in the programs have drug offenses. And Clark Porter says it’s important to know why they have these offenses to keep them from going back to their old ways.
“An uneducated black man growing up in the inner city; he either has McDonald's, or he has dope," Porter says. "So, what do you think he’s going to choose? The same thing you would choose. You’re going to choose the one that pays better. And dope pays sometimes."
Porter says revoking someone’s probation for not finding a job or for substance abuse serves no purpose. Because when they get out, they’re still not going to have a job and they’re still going to have an issue with drugs. He says there are guys in the program that have gone from using every day to being clean and sober.
“Did it serve our interest to lock him up? Or did it serve our interest to get him clean?," Porter says. "Because if he’s clean; we don’t have to worry about him knocking somebody in the head for a shot of dope. If he’s clean, we can focus on getting him employed and have him paying into the system.”
No easy task
But getting those in Project Re-Direct to get on the straight and narrow is no easy task for Clark Porter.
"He’s got to put up with a lot of knuckleheads. He has to put up with a lot of people who aren't going to listen," says Lamont McGhee, who spent 13 years in federal prison for drug conspiracy.
McGhee says his probation officer put him in the program because she didn’t think McGhee was looking for a job. But he says he was making money doing yard work in his neighborhood.
"When I got in the program they told me, 'okay you have this company and we want you to legitimize it.' And that’s what I did," McGhee says.
McGhee also works for a moving company. He’s paying back child support and reconnecting with his three daughters.
Stories like McGhee’s are becoming more common in Missouri’s Eastern District. That’s especially good news because this district is tasked with supervising the highest-risk caseload with the most violent repeat offenders.
Yet, they have a fairly low recidivism rate; ranking 43 out of 93 districts. Chief Probation Officer Doug Burris is proud of the department’s success. And he often reflects on how far Clark Porter has come. Recently, Burris sent Porter to Washington, D.C. to attend a regional White House meeting and he found himself reflecting on Porter’s journey.
"Because the last time the government paid for him to fly, he was in hand cuffs and belly chains on his way to a maximum security prison," Burris said. "And he went from that to having the government pay for him to fly to meet with White House officials."
Clark Porter doesn’t dwell on his past. And he and Lisa White advise those in Project Re-Direct not to dwell on theirs. White says Porter owns his mistakes, but they don’t define him.
- See the first story in Julie Bierach's series on Clark Porter, and learn about how he turned his life around.
Follow Julie Bierach on Twitter: @jbierach