Today, writes Juliet Eilperin for the Washington Post, Christopher Poulos looks like a successful Hill staffer, with closely cropped auburn hair and a set of crisp suits. He’s just finished a White House internship, and is set to finish law school this spring.
But back on election night in 2008, he was a troubled teenager, watching the returns from behind bars.
As Eilperin writes, Chris Poulos’ path of perseverance and recovery from that low point — overcoming tragic family losses, homelessness, addiction and incarceration — shows just what being given a second chance can mean.
Far from running from his past, though, young Poulos is dedicated to helping others overcome or avoid similar challenges.
Indeed, despite the stigma attached to it, this young Greek American has found that sharing his remarkable story is actually helping inspire others.
After joining Young People in Recovery, a national group that supports youths who have experienced addiction, he started speaking publicly about his experience — including a TEDx talk he gave last year, “How I Went From Federal Prison to Capitol Hill.”
That path was not vouchsafed — by any means.
The child of a single mother, Chris used to rifle through his grandfather’s dusty legal books and dreamed of being a lawyer.
But at the age of 10, he began defying every authority figure in his life. At 13, he was prescribed Ritalin to address his attention-deficit disorder. Almost immediately, he started misusing the prescription, as well as benzodiazepines and opiates.
Two years later, his family doctor switched him to Adderall and added sleeping pills because, as he explained, “If you put a child on speed during the day, you need something to calm him down at the end of the day.”
In high school, a series of personal setbacks accelerated Poulos’s use of drugs and alcohol.
Within a few months, his stepfather, a commercial fisherman, was lost at sea, Poulos’s grandfather died and a close friend was killed in a fight.
To help him cope with the grief, his doctor prescribed Xanax, then Klonopin, and Poulos began consuming large quantities of those substances as well, along with alcohol. During his senior year, his mother kicked him out of the house. Eventually, he began using cocaine and illegal opiates and sold drugs to support his habit.
“I would have never been involved in any illegal activity had it not been for an untreated addiction,” he said in an interview. “I never woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to pollute my community with cocaine.’ It was a long road in.”
During that time, he went into recovery with the support of a 12-step program.
“When you start turning your life around, the wreckage doesn’t automatically get cleaned up,” says a friend and fellow recovering addict, who is now a successful real estate developer. “In his case, he had to deal with the wreckage by going to prison.”
In prison, Poulos started teaching writing to other inmates and began studying Spanish.
Prison authorities confiscated the Spanish-language CDs a friend sent him, but allowed him to keep the books.
After 33 months in jail and a federal halfway house, he was free.
Poulos went on to work as a telemarketer promoting vacation homes, and then as a paralegal. When he broached the idea of applying to University of Maine Law School in 2012, Poulos was dispirited by a talk he had with the school’s then-dean, Peter Pitegoff.
Pitegoff explained to him how even if he graduated with a law degree, his felony conviction might prevent him from gaining admission to the state bar. In an interview, Pitegoff, who still teaches at the school but no longer serves as its dean, said he was trying to outline “a wide variety of options he could do to pursue his goals.”
“At the end, I think he walked away a bit deflated instead of encouraged,” Pitegoff said.
Poulos remembers the exchange even more starkly, asking Pitegoff, “Dean, why didn’t the judge give me a life sentence?” he recalled. “Okay, so then why are you giving me one today?”
DETERMINED NOT TO GIVE UP
Throughout the process, Poulos networked, and he eventually won admission with Pitegoff’s full support. Poulos spotted a journalist he knew while crossing a public square in downtown Portland one day; that reporter helped put him on a mayor’s task force on criminal-justice policy and addiction.
When [the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s director, Michael Botticelli] came to Portland City Hall for a meeting with reform advocates and was mobbed after the session, Poulos calculated that he would be better off standing outside the building’s main entrance so he could catch Botticelli on his way out the door.
“I knew that having a conversation with this guy had the potential to change my life,” he said. “I saw the moment.”
The two men had a brief conversation, and one of Botticelli’s aides gave Poulos a card. Poulos kept in touch and last year applied for a White House internship.
The application form, unlike those of many employers, does not require applicants to indicate whether they have a criminal conviction, and by the end of the summer, he had an offer from the White House.
“But no one knew what would happen with my clearance,” he said.
Neither White House officials nor Poulos would talk in detail about his clearance process, although Poulos called it “a thorough but fair investigation.” He filled out nearly 100 pages of documents, and with no decision reached by the end of September, Poulos headed back to Maine in October to start his final year of law school.
As he was driving up the highway near Worcester, Mass., a “no caller ID” call flashed on his phone’s screen. In the past, that had signaled an incoming call from a fellow drug dealer or a federal agency. This time, it was the Secret Service agent who had conducted his clearance investigation, so Poulos pulled off the road.
“I found your case so extraordinary, and so encouraging, I wanted to call you myself to congratulate you,” Poulos recalled the agent telling him.
Alone in the parking lot of a Papa Gino’s pizzeria, Poulos got out of his car and started jumping up and down in celebration.
Getting a White House job has not solved all his problems: Poulos could not rent an apartment in the District because of the apartment agency’s restrictions on those with felony convictions and had to sublet instead.
But he is set to graduate from law school in May, defends juvenile offenders as a sworn member of the Maine bar and was named a law student of the year by National Jurist magazine.
Christopher Northrop, who directs UM law school’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, said that although Poulos does not share his personal history with clients, “he has a comfort level with the kids he’s working with and a level of knowledge that they pick up on.”
Recently, Poulos managed to get charges against a 17-year-old he was representing reduced, sparing him a felony conviction.
“That felony conviction could have haunted him for the rest of his life, like my conviction has haunted me,” he said.
After a summer in Washington, DC, as the Legal Fellow at The Sentencing Project, Poulos found himself at the U.S. Probation Office for the District of Columbia, sitting on Chief Gennine A. Hagar’s couch.
“Right on this sofa, I’ve had Marion Barry, Scooter Libby,” Hagar remarked, noting the late D.C. mayor and the former aide to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who were convicted of federal felonies.
Poulos is frequently reminded just how far he has come from where he was in October 2008.
“In the past, people didn’t want to be near me,” he said. Recently, a police officer approached him in a parking lot at the University of Southern Maine, knowing that he had worked at the White House. The officer wanted to know whether Poulos could get him a signed photo of President Obama.
“I told him, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ I probably can get it.”
The night Barack Obama was elected president, Christopher Poulos watched the election returns inside a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., where he was the only white inmate in the TV room. Read more at: washingtonpost.com