Clark Porter traces the moment he began to turn his life around back to a $10 bet he made with a guy named Pork Chop. It was 1987, and Porter was an 18-year-old federal inmate who had just started serving a 35-year sentence for armed robbery. Expecting to spend most of his adult life behind bars, he could often be found drunk in his cell on prison moonshine — until he found an unlikely source of motivation.
"This guy Pork Chop was like, 'Man, you spend all your time hanging out on the yard playing and joking, but you can't pass the GED,'" Porter recalled. "I said, 'Yes, I can, I just don't feel like being bothered.' He said, 'I bet you $10 you can't pass.'"
Porter took the bet — and proceeded to flunk the test by three points. The seed was sown, however, and he was confident that he had the ability to achieve academically. He took the GED test again and passed. It was the first step in his rehabilitation.
"I thought, 'Hey, I got something here,'" he said. "I wasn't dumb like everyone had been telling me all my life."
Porter, 47, was granted early parole in 2001, and he has devoted his life after prison to helping other ex-cons reintegrate into society after they are released. A program support specialist at the federal probation office in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, he runs a high-intensity group for offenders who are close to having their probation revoked and being sent back to prison. In group sessions, he questions participants about why they're late to class or how their job search is going. He sees a lot of his old self in prisoners that are coming home, and he does what he can to make the transition easier for them.
"When you are working with older offenders, the push is to get them some type of trade or skill that is comparable to their age," Clark said. "If he's at retirement age, we're going to look at his [Social Security] work credit. Our objective is to get him his medical coverage. Housing. We can utilize funds, but sometimes we have to go outside the box."
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has designated April 24-30 as National Reentry Week, highlighting the importance of post-release programs to reduce recidivism. On Sunday, President Barack Obama announced plans to unveil new measures aimed at making the system "smarter, fairer, less expensive, and more effective."
Obama said his administration will soon rollout new steps to "ensure that applicants with a criminal history have a fair shot to compete for a federal job," and he called on "businesses to commit to hiring returning citizens who have earned a second chance."
"Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from prison," the president said. "We need to ensure that they are prepared to reenter society and become productive, contributing members of their families and communities — and maybe even role models."
But with even more inmates — including many older offenders — likely to be released in the coming years as criminal justice reforms take effect, there is growing concern that the federal government isn't prepared to handle the influx. Many halfway houses are full, and the probation system is stretched thin.
'As the government locks people up for long periods of time, it totally destroys their ability to be self sufficient.'
"The BOP [Bureau of Prisons] is not geared to handle the release of any prisoner, much less elderly ones," said Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News and the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. "As the government locks people up for long periods of time, it totally destroys their ability to be self sufficient. The elderly prisoners will be leaving one institution, a prison, and going to another one, a nursing home."
Obama has vowed to take a long-term, comprehensive approach to the problem by addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system while investing in drug courts, mental health treatment, and other alternatives to incarceration. The president has also talked about "disrupting the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails."
Porter was the poster child of the school-to-prison pipeline. He was born and raised in a rough neighborhood on the northside of St. Louis, and was in foster care from age four to 15 because his mother didn't have the means to take care of her seven kids. A confident and assured man built like an ex-football player, Porter is today settling into middle age. But he recalls how adrift he was as an adolescent.
"When I left the foster system my sister said, 'Mom ain't got nothing for you, you've got to hustle or go to school,'" Clark told VICE News. "It wasn't get a job or go to school. It was hustle or go to school. School wasn't doing nothing for me. I'm pretty much existing in abject poverty. I started committing crimes at the age of 12 — petty theft, shoplifting, purse snatching, stuff like that."
He graduated to committing robberies in his early teens and eventually ended up in juvenile detention. Under Missouri law, 17-year-olds can be tried as adults, and one of Porter's robberies at that age in 1986 led to his 35-year sentence. Though he obtained his GED after his bet with Pork Chop, Porter admits he was not exactly a model inmate and was investigated for his alleged involvement in stabbings. He ended up serving 10 years at the US penitentiary in in Marion, Illinois, which at the time was "supermax" prison reserved for the most violent and dangerous federal prisoners.
"Any time they pop the [cell] doors you've got to be ready, because you've got the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia — all these different cliques you're dealing with on a daily basis," he said. "At that time I was 25 and I had eight years under me and I was like, man, I'm tired of all this."
Instead of giving into prison life, Clark started doing something for his future. When he learned that he would be eligible for parole in 1999 — his sentence was supposed to run through 2021 — he went back and shared the good news with his cellmate, who gave him a reality check about what he would need to do in order to remain free.
"He said, 'Man, you ain't going to make it.' He was like, 'Your attitude sucks,'" Porter said. "He said, 'Your attitude has got to change' — and we're talking about somebody who had a bad attitude saying that about me. I thought about it and he was right."
Clark started reading books — self-help, religious, English, and math — anything to get him prepared to go back to college when he got out. He enrolled in community college after he was paroled in 2001, and eventually obtained a bachelor's degree from the prestigious Washington University, and later a master's degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He began working at the federal probation office in 2009.
Porter's job is to connect ex-cons with resources in the community, helping them find medical care, enroll in school, or scrape together enough money to survive. One of the biggest challenges he and his colleagues face is teaching people who have been locked up for decades how to use computers, smartphones, and other forms of technology.
"Some might not even know how to use a computer," said Scott Anders, the deputy chief probation officer in St. Louis. "If you were incarcerated for a long time, things have changed. We want to focus on what we need to do so that they have access to those skills."
Advocates say the limited and costly access to phones in prison makes it difficult for inmates to establish support networks on the outside, and that the current system does virtually nothing to help prisoners readjust to society upon release.
Marty McNair, the program development director at Mi Casa Es Su Casa Behavioral Health Program in Baltimore, described one recent client who had been released from prison after serving 41 years. Recalling how the man died of a drug overdose, he called the elderly ex-con "a prime example" of the federal prison system not preparing prisoners for reentry.
'Some might not even know how to use a computer. If you were incarcerated for a long time, things have changed.'
"They don't prepare the older geriatric prisoners for reentry," McNair said. "The lack of training with social skills, technological training, behavioral and mental health assessments — it's impossible for some of these guys to succeed. Most of the geriatric prisoners are comfortable with a little Social Security money and some food stamps. Honestly, who's going to hire the 60-plus-year-old guy to do anything?"
According to Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, one of the biggest issues for inmates leaving the federal prison system is that the reentry process varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. He said people who are locked up are often left learning what to expect on the outside from "correctional personnel, representatives from the federal prosecutor's office, potential employers, and a cadre of volunteers, some of whom are ex-cons."
Sometimes people like Clark are the best individuals to help ex-offenders when they come home — somebody who was schooled on the street, in the penitentiary, and in the academic world. He has been through the struggle and he knows what it's like. He and others believe prisons should start preparing inmates for the outside world much earlier on.
"Our federal prison system confines too many people who serve sentences that are measured in multiple decades," said Michael Santos, an ex-prisoner who served 26 years and now hosts the podcast Earning Freedom. "As it stands, the system doesn't invest sufficient resources to encourage those people to prepare for the challenges that await. They will return to communities that resist the formerly incarcerated."
While Obama has plans to reform the reentry system for federal inmates, many of his fixes are long-term solutions that will take years to bear fruit. Until the system changes, success stories like Porter's will be the exception rather than the rule. He wants other ex-cons to know that there's no easy way — even with help and support, it takes hard work to succeed after coming out of prison.
"People get the perception that I walked out of prison, walked into the federal probation office, and got a job," Porter said. "But they don't understand the eight years of ramen noodles, peanut butter and crackers, stripping and waxing floors on my weekends, no days off, going to school and earning those degrees. It was an eight year process of academics."
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