Clark Porter traded his life in prison for an education at Washington University.
By Kristen Farrah
ST. LOUIS – Clark Porter went to prison before he could graduate high school. After serving his 15 years, Porter earned his associate’s degree from St. Louis Community College, bachelor’s degree from Washington University and master’s degree from University of Missouri St. Louis.
Porter said he never lived until he went to community college. From the age of 4 until he was 32, Porter said he spent his life surviving.
Porter said aggression felt normal, even after his time in prison. The teachers at St. Louis Community College (STLCC) Forest Park helped him learn how to speak and interact with people more effectively. Porter worked as a receptionist in the writing lab and had to change his “Whatcha want?” welcome, to “Hi, good morning. How can I help you?”
“For me to survive, I have to see you as a victim,” Porter said. “You spend your life living like this, you don’t know another way.”
When he was 17, Porter committed armed robbery at a post office and was first sent to the medium security United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., then to the supermax
security USP Marion. Porter said Marion, now reduced to medium security, operated under relatively lax security.
“Everytime they would open the door somebody was getting their head torn off or getting stabbed or something,” Porter said. “That’s the way it was.”
Porter eventually landed himself in the USP Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colo. The supermax prison runs on a 22-hour lockdown policy for its inmates. Porter was incarcerated there for 10 years.
Porter focused on his faith and education after he discovered he had five years left of his sentence. He read self-help and anger management books, taking strides to better himself. His goals ranged from getting a college degree to joining a gym.
He studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Nation of Islam, Traditional Islam and Orthodox Christianity. He read books on specific religions, and general ideas on morals and values. Leo Tolstoy’s “Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence” struck a chord in Porter.
Tolstoy talked about strength in nonviolent acts and activities. Porter said he thought Tolstoy wrote sound arguments on why it takes more fortitude and strength to be nonviolent than it does to commit an act of violence.
Father Stephen Powley worked as a chaplain at ADX for 12 years. He helped Porter research different religions and provided him with different books from the prison’s library. The Orthodox Christian chaplain said Porter takes the top of the list of success stories to come out of ADX.
“To see where he’s come and how far he’s come and how God has truly, truly transformed his life. Unbelievable,” Powley said.
Porter converted to the Orthodox Christian faith in the last five years of his sentence.
“It was an unwatered down version of Christianity in the raw,” Porter said. “There was an honesty about it.”
Powley stayed in contact with Porter’s church, and after he retired in 2010, he was able to talk to Porter directly. He said Porter’s remarkability stems from the path he made for himself after he left ADX.
Porter earned his G.E.D, then accumulated 15 to 20 credit hours toward college before he left ADX. He enrolled in STLCC at the age of 32.
Porter said he loved to write. Lori Hirst, one of his tutors, gave some of his essays to Robert Wiltenburg, the former dean of University College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Wiltenburg said Porter wrote wonderfully and showed an unusual degree of self-perception.
“He was writing about the effect he thought he had on people,” Wiltenburg said. “That people found him to be sometimes threatening, or they didn’t know what to make of him.”
Wiltenburg offered Porter a full-merit scholarship that paid for 80 percent of Porter’s tuition. Porter pursued a psychology degree at Washington University after finishing his associates degree at STLCC. Porter said the greatest challenge was proving he belonged at the university.
He said he was not going to be a ‘C’ student.
Porter turned in his papers early, took advantage of available extra credit and communicated regularly with his teachers. Wiltenburg and Porter did not meet often, but Wiltenburg continually checked in with Porter’s advisors. He also watched Porter’s progress throughout his time at Washington University.
“I’ve read a lot of freshman compositions and I don’t think any of them ever struck me as forcibly as the ones I saw from Clark,” Wiltenburg said.
Porter graduated from Washington University and earned a full ride to the University of Missouri St. Louis’ masters program in social work. He worked as a research assistant on a grant for parental substance abuse and mental health while at UMSL.
Porter now works at the Federal Probation Office as a Program Support Specialist. He said he loves his job, and, after nine years, he continues to try to better the lives of people who share similar experiences to his.
“[I entered the probation system] for the purpose of doing better than the ones who served me did,” Porter said.