Dear President Obama,
On election night in 2008, I was federal prisoner being held in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I was the only white inmate in the TV room that night. As the election results poured in, it became evidence that you would be the next President of the United States. The room was filled with black men, some of whom had been incarcerated for decades for non-violent drug offenses. One of the men, Marvin, had marched with Dr. King. In a rare break from normal prison behavior, we embraced one another. Tears of joy were shed; as we stood as one in that space, in our captivity, and witnessed history unfold before us. The room was thick with powerful emotion: disbelief gave way to hope for change. I would not trade that experience for any election night party on earth.
In your acceptance speech, you reaffirmed that anything is possible in this country. I took your words to hearts and began to live my life accordingly. My subsequent journey in recovery brought me from addiction, homelessness, and incarceration to college, law school, and serving in your administration as an intern at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Recovery, perseverance, and privilege have also allowed me to serve as Legal Fellow at The Sentencing Project, advise United States Senator Angus King, and serve as chapter president of the American Constitution Society at the University of Main School of Law.
Most importantly, recovery has allowed me to show up and be present for my friends and family and to help build my community and our nation rather than harm them. On May 14th, I graduated from law school with honors. That date also marked the day, exactly nine years ago, when I woke up and made the decision to not drink or use drugs and to seek help instead.
My desire to become an attorney fully manifested while I was incarcerated. I witnessed injustices that made me determined to someday impact policy by practicing law. For example, when I was being held in county jail on pretrial detention, my court appointed attorney told me there was no sense in having a bail hearing because there was no way I would prevail. He also pushed me toward a guilty plea before we had obtained discovery. I was able to hire private counsel, and I was released from jail within hours. As soon as I hired expensive private counsel, my entire experience with the judicial process changed dramatically. When I left jail that day and I saw all the men I left behind – many of whom were people of color and all of whom were economically disadvantaged – I knew I would eventually practice law. This experience deeply bothered my sense of justice and equality. I then took the small, concrete, daily steps necessary to make my dream materialize.
If not for my place of privilege, I would just now be returning home from prison instead of traveling back and forth between Maine and D.C. for conferences and White House meetings. I still served nearly three years in federal prison but had it not been for my resources, my sentence would have been much longer.
I am currently communicating with a man serving a life sentence in federal prison on a drug charge. He grew up in a stable two-parent home and attended private schools; he was also young and black in D.C. during the height of its violence. The last time I spoke with him by phone, other men surrounded him, anxiously waiting and hoping I could provide them with an update regarding clemency. But for circumstance, I could still be there with them, waiting for news. The man’s name is Eric and despite our currently vastly different lives, we immediately recognized a strong common bond, and we are learning from each other.
Through God’s Grace, I was lifted from my former lifestyle, and my dream of practicing law finally materialized this year when I had the honor of representing juveniles facing criminal charges in the very same court where I was once the defendant. I also have the honor of mentoring incarcerated juveniles, where I share my own experience and path with the hope and faith that some of these young people’s lives may be positively redirected.
Thank you for the vital work you and your entire administration are doing on criminal justice reform and addiction recovery. Thank you for allowing me to serve. The launching of reentry week, the balanced drug control budget proposal, My Brother’s Keeper, the Pell Grant initiative for incarcerated people, and your clemency work all deserve immense praise. The Pell Grant program is particularly vital. My experience has been that education and opportunity serve as an antidote to hopelessness.
You have had a tremendous impact on my life and on the lives of so many others. I am very interested in becoming involved with My Brother’s Keeper and the Obama Foundation. Please let me know if I can be of further service in any way. I would love to remain involved in this work with your administration, and I would be incredibly honored to meet you and thank you in person.
Christopher R. Poulos, J.D.