Overcoming Incarceration, Portland Man Graduates from Law School

May 13, 2016

Saturday is graduation day for the Maine Law School in Portland. Among those crossing the stage to receive a diploma will be Chris Poulos. It’s a big moment for the 33-year-old Poulos, a former substance abuser with a felony conviction.

May 14 will always be an important day for Poulos. Not just because it’s graduation day — it’s also an anniversary.

“May 14th, 2007, was the day I woke up and said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to take a drink today. I’m not going to use drugs today. I’m going to try something different and ask for help,’” he says.

At the time, Poulos had been abusing drugs for a decade. He started when he was about 13. By his late teens and early twenties, he was overdosing on a regular basis, in and out of homelessness and unable to go to school or work.

“It used to be that as soon as I put a chemical into my body, whether it be alcohol or drugs, it was like, ‘Ahh.’ Like, relief for a little while. But then the problem would always get worse,” he says.

A few months after he started recovery from substance abuse, Poulos’ past caught up with him. He was indicted on felony charges for distributing cocaine. He pleaded guilty and served three years in federal prison.

But in the time leading up to his sentence, an attorney helped Poulos stay out on bail to continue his recovery. It revived a childhood dream to become a lawyer, just like his grandfather.

Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine, met Poulos after he was released from prison and had resumed his studies at USM.

“As educators, every now and then, we come across students, or student leaders, who really give meaning to what we do as educators,” he says.

“I told him about my dream of going to law school. And this was the first time I told anybody that wasn’t in recovery themselves that I had issues with addiction, or let alone, God forbid, tell somebody that I was incarcerated,” Poulos says.

Jalali set up a meeting with the dean of the Maine School of Law. Poulos says it went well, at first. But when he told the dean that he was a convicted felon, he says the mood changed.

“He was wary with someone with my background attending the law school, and also concerned I would not be able to practice law, and maybe there was another profession that would better suit me,” he says.

The feedback crushed Poulos.

“The judge did not sentence me to a life sentence. He sentenced me to 33 months. I completed that. And I wanted not just to survive and putt along, I wanted to thrive and excel in recovery,” he says.

The experience solidified Poulos’ resolve. He boosted his grades at USM and introduced himself to law school faculty and staff. Ultimately he got in, with the blessing of Peter Pitegoff, the dean he had met with before.

“He was so determined and had very good reasons and a very good explanation for how he could succeed despite mistakes in the past,” Pitegoff says.

Poulos says he’s able to maintain his recovery by helping others. He shared his story recently at a crisis intervention training at the South Portland Police Department. He told officers to try to connect substance abusers to treatment.

“You know, ‘Bobby — we’ve arrested you 9 times in the last 18 months. Why? Is there something else we can do besides bringing you to county?’” he says.

Poulos wants to use his law degree to work in policy, to address the underlying issues that lead to incarceration. It’s work he did last fall when he landed an internship at the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House.

He shakes his head in disbelief how, in the first few years of the Obama administration, he was a federal prisoner.

“And then to be able to hold my own White House badge and serve in that administration truly shows the president’s belief in rehabilitation,” he says.

The belief, Poulos says, in second chances.