‘My greatest burden is also my greatest asset’
Before he became Chris Poulos the standout student at the University of Maine School of Law, he was Chris Poulos the addict.
Before he was president of the Maine Law chapter of the American Constitution Society, he was Chris Poulos the convicted felon.
Before he landed a prestigious summer internship with The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., he was Chris Poulos the troubled kid from Portland who needed a second chance and — perhaps more than anything else — people to believe in him.
Poulos hasn’t forgotten his past. He isn’t running away from the struggles he endured, or the mistakes he made. Instead, the 32-year old continues to draw on all of his experiences, and every moment he spent changing his life for the better, as the fuel he needs to become a top attorney, mentor, and advocate for criminal justice policy reform. Poulos is a Dean’s List student who will enter his third and final year at Maine Law this fall. Probation officers and others within the federal court system have described him as one of the most extraordinary examples of rehabilitation they have ever witnessed.
“My greatest burden is also my greatest asset. It is one thing to read a book about what it means to be in prison, be homeless, or put a needle in your arm, it is another thing entirely to have actually experienced and survived those challenges,” Poulos said. “I see myself as an asset to people in the criminal justice system, to Maine Law, and to the legal profession not in spite of my past, but because of it.”
An advocate for reform
Through a variety of means, including his internship this summer with The Sentencing Project, Poulos is focused on changing our nation’s ‘mass incarceration’ approach to criminal justice policy generally and substance abuse specifically. He is pushing for reforms that emphasize early intervention to break the cycle of poverty and addiction. Poulos chairs a subcommittee for the City of Portland and its police force, which is exploring ways to divert eligible low-level offenders toward treatment and other resources and away from the criminal justice system.
The proposal involves attempting to pull people out of the cycle of addiction and incarceration permanently, rather than simply removing them from society temporarily, only for them to return to the same situations and associated behaviors. The program is also designed to transform and transcend relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, as it would create non-adversarial and non-confrontational interactions between first responders and the people they would often otherwise be taking to jail.
“For addiction, poverty, and mental health related offenses, jail alone is short-sighted. It is a tiny Band Aid for a deep and infected wound,” Poulos said. “You can temporarily remove the person from their community to patch the wound, but it is incredibly more effective to perform the surgery necessary to address the underlying and ongoing issues, and to provide an opportunity for the individual to become a productive member of society.”
For several years, Poulos has been a mentor and motivational speaker at Long Creek Youth Development Center and has volunteered at the Cumberland County Jail.
“There is a criminalized class now, a new form of a caste system, under which members (those with criminal records) are often unable to go beyond pushing a broom, because as soon as they attempt to move up in the class structure, they are judged by the worst thing they did, rather than the sum of themselves,” he said. “Many are never allowed to even vote again, and this treatment continues long after they have completed their sentence and/or probation and paid any fines.”
“If we truly expect people to change, we have to change our ways of thinking and acting. We have to provide the tools people need to emerge as full members of society and positive role models in their communities once they have fulfilled their debt. A criminal conviction that is not a life sentence should not effectively serve as such, but unfortunately, it often does.”
From a downward spiral to sobriety
Poulos was in his early teens when he began a downward spiral of addiction to alcohol and drugs. He grew up without a father and experienced multiple tragic family losses during his teenage years. Despite stretches of homelessness, he graduated from Deering High School in Portland, thanks largely to the help of Deborah Duffett, a teacher and retired Navy Lieutenant commander. But his addiction then became worse, moving into hard liquor and cocaine. Time after time, he made destructive choices, and in 2007, he was charged in federal court with drug trafficking and possession of a firearm. The destructive choices Poulos made were always directly correlated to an underlying and untreated addiction. Since attaining sobriety over eight years ago, Poulos has not received so much as a traffic ticket. He also made it clear that he takes full responsibility for his actions and does not blame others or his life circumstances for his decisions.
“I achieved sobriety about a year before my indictment. That’s when my downward spiral ended. I was 24,” Poulos recalled.
Poulos continued his personal transformation before he was sentenced and remained on this positive path throughout his nearly three-year period of incarceration. He taught English and prepared other inmates for their G.E.D. exams. He learned Spanish and the practice of yoga. He sponsored men in recovery and founded a peer based recovery support group at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. He studied law and criminal justice policy, and knew he wanted to pursue his law degree.
Part of that pathway already felt predetermined to Poulos. His grandfather, Richard Poulos, had been a federal bankruptcy judge in Maine, and as a child, Poulos had listened to his grandfather’s stories and spent hours reading accounts of Maine’s most fascinating cases. His mother, Kathy Poulos, has also been a longtime human rights advocate, fighting for fair and equal treatment under the law for members of Portland’s refugee community.
Pathways to success
Upon his release from prison, Poulos enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, where he soon got a job with the office of Student Legal Services, and designed his own Maine State Judiciary internship. He was elected Chapter President of the National Political Science Honor Society, and received the Alan B. Rodway Memorial Scholarship at the recommendation of faculty.
Poulos had never earned an “A” before, and upon earning his first “A”, never again earned anything less during his undergraduate career. After his first “A,” Poulos maintained a 4.0 grade point average during each subsequent semester, all while working two jobs, and paying his own way through college.
Poulos has chosen this time to publicly share his story because he feels the stigma attached to terms such as “felon,” “convict,” and “addict” can only be broken through normalization, exposure, and ultimately, acceptance. People need to be shown through example that not everyone who has made mistakes is a monster, he said. The United States now has a prison population of more than 2.2 million people, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years, eclipsing the prison populations in all other nations, both in raw numbers and per capita.
The struggle for criminal justice policy reform is one of the most pressing fronts of the ongoing civil rights movement, Poulos said. He believes that it is hard to hate up close: “The recovery movement and those with criminal convictions who have overcome their past have much to learn from the openness now seen in the LGBT community. So long as we hide ourselves in the shadows, society will keep us in the shadows.”
‘I wasn’t going to give up’
Poulos vividly recalls his first meeting with Peter Pitegoff, former dean at the University of Maine School of Law. The Director of the Multicultural Program at USM, Reza Jalali, arranged and attended the meeting on behalf of Poulos and he remains one of his many strong supporters. Poulos eagerly told Dean Pitegoff about his interest in social change and criminal justice policy and his desire to attend law school. Pitegoff was not as enthusiastic, Poulos recalled. The Dean told him that he would have to work twice as hard as the average law student.
“He warned me that law is a very guarded profession, and that he didn’t know how receptive the legal community in Maine would be to me. He suggested that I might consider pursuing other ways to bring about change, other than pursuing a J.D.”
At the time, Poulos was crushed. But with the benefit of hindsight, he realized that Pitegoff was giving him his first lesson on what a person with Poulos’ background would face.
“He was being a good teacher. Rather than patting me on the back and coddling, he gave me a realistic outlook, as much as it was painful at the time. I was discouraged, but I told him I wasn’t going to give up, and I didn’t. That conversation only served to further fan the flame already burning within me, which was then and remains now, fully determined to follow this path.”
A few years later, after Pitegoff and the admission team at Maine Law unanimously agreed to accept him, Poulos showed up for the first day of his first semester.
“The first person I saw when I opened the door was Pitegoff. He lit right up, as he does, and walked in my direction with his hand out. He said, ‘you are welcome here; you are part of this community now.’ That’s a moment that I’ll never forget.”
Learn more about Christopher Poulos’ journey to law school and his work in the field of criminal justice policy reform:
- Overcoming Incarceration, Portland Man Graduates from Law School by MPBN
- Law Students of the Year by the National Jurist
- From the Big House to the White House by the Washington Post
- 10 Most Intriguing 2015 by Portland Magazine
- Interview with the Washington Post: Recovering substance abusers brave stigma by giving up secrecy
- Podcast interview on ‘Earning Freedom’ with Michael Santos.
- Bangor Daily News article and Forecaster article about Poulos and the City of Portland studying the concept of diversion for low-level offenders struggling with poverty, addiction, and mental health issues.
- Guest column written by Poulos in March 2015 for the American Constitution Society blog.