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.
Poulos had been convicted in 2008 of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and spent an additional two years in federal prison. But by last fall, he had an access badge to the White House. The law student, now 33, recently finished an internship in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
His journey from a federal prison to clearance by the Secret Service to work in the White House illustrates Obama’s particular philosophy that the United States is “a nation of second chances.” The societal reclamation of Poulos, a once-homeless teenager from Portland, Maine, shows what that kind of thinking looks like in real life.
Although Poulos’s trajectory is unusual, he’s not the only person with a criminal past to work in that White House office: JD Stier left college to serve 25 months for selling marijuana and landed a job as the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s national outreach coordinator after working as a field organizer for Obama’s 2008 bid.
And the office’s director, Michael Botticelli, has been in recovery since his driver’s license was suspended almost three decades ago after a drunken-driving incident.
“I think — not I think, I know — they bring a unique perspective to the work that we do,” Botticelli said. “They bring a sense and a depth of understanding that folks who have not had that direct, lived experience don’t bring.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) has sought out Poulos’s advice for the same reason. King, who has joined with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in asking for $600 million in emergency funding to address the drug epidemic in New England, said he had been trying to answer the question: “Does treatment work?” Only 1 in 10 Maine residents seeking treatment have access to it, the senator added.
“His answer, unequivocally, was yes,” King said of Poulos. King said he considered Poulos “one of the most impressive people” he had ever met, “particularly given where he’s been and what he’s done.”
Poulos, the child of a single mother, 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.”
Poulos’s activities came under scrutiny from Drug Enforcement Administration agents, although it was a year before he was indicted on drug charges. During that time, he went into recovery with the support of a 12-step program. Kevin, a friend and recovering alcoholic who asked that his last name not be used in keeping with the practice of the recovery program, said that Poulos’s experience was not unique.
“When you start turning your life around, the wreckage doesn’t automatically get cleaned up,” said Kevin, 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 Kevin sent him but allowed him to keep the books. After 33 months in jail and a federal halfway house, he was free.
He voted for Obama in 2012 and would have in 2008 had his absentee ballot arrived in time. Maine does not deny felons the right to vote.
Now Poulos looks like a successful Hill staffer, with closely cropped auburn hair and a set of crisp suits. One of his tattoos, a Celtic cross, peeks out from his shirt collar, but hiding underneath are an entire oceanscape emblazoned on his chest, which he got inked after being indicted on felony charges, and tattoos on his back.
After joining Young People in Recovery, a national group that supports youths who have experienced addiction, he started speaking publicly about his experience. A portion of the TEDx talk he recorded last year, an independently organized event, now plays in a loop in a North Carolina federal probation office, and on one January afternoon, he 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.
Hagar believes people on probation are more likely to listen to someone who has served time. So on the day Poulos met Hagar, he addressed a couple dozen men and women who had just completed federal prison sentences. “Welcome home, to anyone who is coming home,” he declared at the outset. “I came home, too.”
Several members of the audience kept their eyes downcast much of the time, but they appeared to be listening as he described his journey from drinking “shot after shot of rum” in a Portland bar as DEA agents searched his apartment one night, to pursuing first a college degree and then a law degree in that city.
Poulos worked as a telemarketer promoting vacation homes and as a paralegal, and he had a dispiriting talk with the University of Maine Law School’s then-dean, Peter Pitegoff, when he broached the idea of applying there in 2012.
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?”
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 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.
Still, his current life is far different from what he faced 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.”