Priest-Turned-Warden Praises Top-Security Federal Penitentiary


In 20 years of prison work, the only time John L. Clark was assaulted was when he was a Roman Catholic priest.

“So much for the image of prisons and priests,” said Clark, who has been warden of the maximum-security federal penitentiary here since January.

“I’ve been spat on a few times, but never assaulted working in corrections,” said Clark, who left the priesthood to marry in 1974 and began his corrections career in the same year. “My only assault was when I was a chaplain in a mental hospital.”

The prison at Marion, the federal system’s only Level 6 penitentiary, is roughly what Alcatraz was until it was closed in the 1960s. It is home to what officials call the “predators,” 400 convicts considered incorrigible.


It contains a few famous criminals, such as Colombian drug smuggler Carlos Lehder and American spies Jonathan Pollard and John Walker Jr. Mostly, it holds the baddest of the bad: inmates that other federal and state prisons cannot handle.

Clark, 47, is informal and talkative, very aware of public relations and matter of fact about being a priest turned jailer.

“I can’t think of any time I’ve had to make a choice between any ideal that I have and some operational decision we had to make in prison,” he said.

This is Clark’s second tour of duty at Marion. He has been transferred seven times since he joined what he calls the federal prisons “merry-go-round” 16 years ago. He holds two master’s degrees and believes in corrections--Marion style.


“People say Marion is inhumane. I say, put in the larger context, it makes the whole system operate in a more humane fashion,” Clark said, because “inmates in other institutions can go to bed at night with both eyes closed because these people are here.”

The average stay at Marion is three years, Clark said. Every inmate has his own cell--and every cell has a television. It’s probably the only prison in the nation that is not overcrowded. Some prisoners are confined to their cells 22 hours a day; the rest have a bit more freedom, but not much.

Critics have said that Marion’s strict regimen has forced the 50-odd other federal correctional institutions to be tougher, but Clark disagreed.

“As a system we don’t run this kind of restrictive operation,” Clark said. “For the most part, we take more criticism for being so open and liberal in the way we run our prisons.”


Clark said that Marion is a model for many state prisons and that it will “go down in the annals of corrections as an historic development.” Marion, he said, is the system’s safety valve.

“The federal system has 55,000 prisoners, and had only 24,000 in 1981,” Clark said. “That increase is happening at the state level, too, and you hear of inmates dominating some facilities. It’s not happening at the federal level, and one reason is Marion.

“They (inmates) go out to other prisons. They don’t get in trouble and they don’t come back to Marion,” Clark said.

The penitentiary, on 1,000 acres surrounded by the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois, looks like a modern factory except for the spools of glistening razor wire that surround it..


Marion has had publicity--mostly bad. Nine inmates and two guards were killed there between February, 1980, and October, 1983. Five inmates have been killed since then. One inmate filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that Marion amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Clark grew up in Jackson, Mich., home to the State Prison of Southern Michigan, a 5,000-inmate facility that claims to be the largest walled prison in the world. Clark said he does not want Marion to hide behind walls.

“We can’t hide behind the walls of the prisons and run our prisons in a vacuum,” Clark said. “We are a public agency with an important social mission. We need to be out there helping people understand.”

“It (public relations) is being given a tremendous emphasis now” in the federal prison system, Clark said “I feel comfortable with that. . . . I think (the priesthood) was good preparation. A priest is not just dealing with individual communicants, he deals with the public arena all the time.”


Clark scoffed at the warden stereotype that is portrayed in movies such as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Escape from Alcatraz.”

“Most of the people I know who are good correctional administrators got into the work to help people. They may not have come out of the clergy, but they are human-oriented individuals,” Clark said. “Those who come in with a hard-line, militaristic type of approach are not successful and do not become wardens.”