In 2008, Christopher Poulos went to federal prison for dealing cocaine in his home state of Maine. Today, he’s a licensed lawyer who’s been hired to lead Washington’s effort to help prison inmates transition back into society.
“If I could write up my own job description of how I would like to be spending my time, this job would match that almost to a T,” Poulos said in an interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.
Poulos is the new executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council. Created in 2016, the 15 member council is charged with finding ways to reduce the number of people who cycle in and out of prison. About a third of Washington inmates return to prison within three years of their release.
“We have an opportunity to design a positive model for reentry that will be implemented in Washington state, but also could be possibly replicated in other jurisdictions and really change reentry practices for the United States and possibly beyond,” Poulos said.
Last year, the reentry council recommended several steps Washington could take to assist current and former inmates become productive members of society. They include more educational opportunities in prison, expanded housing options in the community and a ban on employers asking about criminal history on job applications, commonly known as “ban the box.”
Reflecting on his own experience, Poulos would like to see broader access to drug and alcohol treatment in all jails and prisons.
“I was a user supporting my addiction by selling cocaine,” Poulos said in explaining why he turned to a life of crime.
Poulos uses his personal story to illustrate the challenges and opportunities that await inmates as they get out of prison. After serving his sentence, Poulos pursued what he calls a “delusional idea” and applied to law school. He was ultimately admitted to the University of Maine School of Law.
During law school he interned in the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House. But even then he couldn’t escape his past.
“I got national security position clearance to serve at the White House and then could not rent an apartment because I have a drug conviction from my early 20s,” Poulos said.
Every time he moves to a new place, including his recent move to Washington, Poulos struggles to find housing. He said that’s the kind of setback that can send a former inmate on a downward spiral.
“The real broad principle is that if we can provide opportunity to people, that serves as an antidote to hopelessness,” Poulos said. “And hopelessness is what leads to the illegal activity.”
The reentry council is co-chaired by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Tarra Simmons, a recent law school graduate who, like Poulos, served time in prison for a drug-related conviction. Simmons is currently appealing a Washington State Bar Association recommendation to not admit her to the bar because of her criminal record.
Poulos has been supportive of Simmons’ appeal.