Duffy Clark

There’s just one word to describe the source of Duffy Clark’s considerable strength—“family”. The 57-year old grandfather of three credits his daughter’s indomitable spirit for making him a success today. Born two months after his arrest, she grew to be his staunchest supporter by the age of 15, and when Clark’s beloved mother and pillar of support died in 2004, his daughter was there to pick up the reins. “I almost lost it when they promised but then denied my release for the funeral,” he recalls, “but my daughter, she grabbed me by the collar and said ‘you’re my daddy—don’t you give up.’” From that moment, she made his release her full-time occupation.

The loyalty that runs deep in Clark’s family-oriented personality also made him a respected elder in the gang of his youth. While incarcerated, he encouraged younger gang members to pursue an education while serving time, to seize the opportunities offered for creating a productive life on the outside. When he arrived in prison at age 20, there were no such influences. As an eleventh-grade dropout, he saw no merit in the educational opportunities before him, but his mother insisted he edify himself every single day of his sentence. True to his promise, he did exactly that—GED, Associate’s, Bachelor’s and two classes short of a Master’s in Political and Social Sciences.

“Put down the knife and pick up the pen,” a voice inside prodded him. While helping to build one of the best law libraries in the corrections system, Clark threw himself into defending prisoners’ constitutional rights. With an average load of 140 cases at any given time, he wrote 15 legal responses per week for the next 15 years, on issues ranging from “indifference to medical needs” to “use of excessive force.” By applying appropriate pressure on correction officials, his work improved living conditions for his fellow inmates and paved the way for others to demand the basic dignity our laws command.

Clark’s own story is fraught with breach of justice and false accusations. He doesn’t deny his gang affiliations or mistakes of the past but adamantly maintains his innocence of the murders that sent him to prison for 34 years. After countless review hearings from 1981 to 2006, Clark was finally released on parole, receiving only $34.14 in an envelope. “It was like a hot sword had been pushed through my body,” he declares, “I mean how is a man supposed to make it with that?” Yet, he was one of the lucky ones.

During the 1971 trial, Clark’s attorney was so affected by the young man that he vowed to provide employment upon his release. Within 30 days of that long-awaited day, the promise was made good, and Clark’s employment history has been seamless ever since. “He knew I’d been railroaded,” he says of the attorney, “and he wanted to know I was going to be okay.” When the man who kept open his job for 34 years retired, he made sure there was somewhere for Clark to go. One year with the new law firm then led to his current career with the Uptown Peoples Law Center. As a certified paralegal, he continues the advocacy work he began in prison, investigating prisoner complaints, writing summaries, and then turning the cases over to the legal director who shops them for pro bono representation.

As expected, life outside prison walls has been full of challenges for Clark. When a drive through his childhood community at the now defunct Cabrini Green became a devastating emotional event, he realized that the kaleidoscope of his past—full of light and dark—may remain a close companion for life. Ask about his future goals, however, and his voice brightens. “I want to establish a good viable business with my daughter,” he states, “and I’d like to buy her a house for standing by me all those years.” He insists that although he will always work on behalf of prisoners’ rights, he does look forward to exploring new possibilities, to a destiny he dared not even imagine just a few short years ago.