An Interview with Christopher Poulos, Director of Person-Centered Services at the Washington State Department of Corrections, on his personal view of mass incarceration in the US, the disparity of opportunity in prison, and how one can succeed post-incarceration.

By Lokahi Dorr-Fay, Liam Sialer-Ollivierre, Emmanuel Hebron, Sam Wicks, Andrew Denny, and Chris Entrop, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

I sat with a hot cup of tea as I opened my laptop to join my evening Zoom class. The soothing smell of chamomile filled the room as my professor greeted us. Chris Poulos entered the Zoom meeting somewhat nonchalantly with a casual “Hi everyone.” His background was blurred and he held a relaxed demeanor as he sat in his living room chair. He seemed comfortable in his black zip-up North Face, and his blonde hair was nicely kept without a strand out of place. 

Mr. Poulos softly whistled to his German Shepherd, Katahdin – also known as Lady Tah Tah –  who eagerly awaited her dinner off camera. He was somewhat soft spoken as he introduced himself, yet we could hear the passion he has for his work and for the sweet Lady Tah Tah, who we formally met at the end of the call. With a quick glance at his social media, you can see that this gorgeous German Shepherd is a light in his life, offering him comfort through the impactful work he does.

Poulos has an impressive record of accomplishments, so it was comforting to have a sense of familiarity. As a formerly incarcerated person who has recovered from drug addiction, he is now a lawyer advocating for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. He recently completed four years as executive director of Governor Inslee’s Statewide Reentry Council, and is now the Director of Person-Centered Services for the Washington State Department of Corrections.

But not every formerly incarcerated person is as fortunate as Mr. Poulos. From people stuck in jail without access to the right defense, to those who made it out but can’t find a job, having incarceration on your record can make every part of life so much more difficult. 

What influenced your decision to seek and accept help to overcome your addiction? 

CP: What happened was I experienced a lot of trauma as a youth. I didn’t meet my actual father until I was about 10. I was never able to form a relationship with him, my mom remarried and I had a stepdad.  This is going to sound weird, but my step dad was both loving and abusive.

I know that sounds weird, maybe, but some people can relate. He loved me but he didn’t know how to love in a healthy way. By the time I was 18 he had died at sea, he was a commercial fisherman and I worked with him as a commercial fisherman as well. I happened to not be on that trip when we believed a tanker ran down his fishing boat and didn’t report it. We didn’t have the money, or the power to fight back against that tanker, so it remains unsolved. That was another formative factor in my passion to become a lawyer.

My substance use disorder is really rooted in untreated trauma. Right while my step dad’s boat was missing at sea, one of my close friends was murdered, and my grandfather within a couple months died in my arms, after a long battle with cancer. That’s what my senior year in high school looked like and my mom didn’t know how to deal with my behavior, so she kicked me out. I found myself homeless in the city of Portland, Maine in the winter as an 18-year-old high school senior. I kept on at that for a few more years. [. . .] For a long time the alcohol and drugs served to fill a void within me; I was truly self-medicating.

It eventually stopped working. I stopped getting the relief that I got from it and I truly believe that the universe, whatever forces you choose to believe in, pulled me out of dying from overdose or in a jail or prison cell. The only way that was possible was I could not get drunk or high. I could no longer get relief from substances.  I knew I needed to either die or seek help. In Maine, they were able to put me into an outpatient treatment program for indigent people. I really should have gone into an Inpatient treatment program but I got into outpatient and I dove into a 12 step Program..

I got into this state treatment program. There’s always people talking about why should taxpayers pay for someone to go to addiction treatment? Or why should people in prison get college when my daughter has to take out loans? Taxpayers probably paid about $10,000 -$15,000 for that state run outpatient treatment program I went to. Had they not, taxpayers would have been paying far, far more for me in and out of jail, in and out of the ERS, in and out of prison until I died. Instead there was that kind of awesome investment for me to go to treatment.

That’s what made all the difference in the world for me. If I had gone to jail or prison while I was still in that active lifestyle, I would have just been in jail or prison, doing the same stuff. Successful reentry occurs when internal healing and growth is met with external opportunity.

Can you describe the moment you decided to go to law school?

CP: I got sober at age 24, about six months into my sobriety, I was arrested on five federal felony charges for distribution of cocaine and for unlawful possession of a firearm. I went to county jail sober, and not just sober meaning I hadn’t used drugs or alcohol that day, I mean I had already had some real internal healing and growth and awakening between when I was using, selling drugs, carrying a gun to where I was at the day the feds brought me to county jail.

I got arrested, I got to county jail and I got on the phone with my court-appointed attorney. I initially didn’t have the funds to hire a private counsel so I called family, called friends and I got on the phone with my court-appointed attorney.  I said to this court appointed attorney “when do I get out of jail” and he said “well, you’re facing five federal felony charges. I don’t think you’re gonna get out. You might as well not even bother trying to get out and you might as well get the clock ticking on your sentence now because you’re going to end up in federal prison anyway”. This was our very first interaction regarding these charges. At this point we didn’t even know the evidence the government had against me, we only knew that I’d been arrested and charged. Immediately I felt like I was on a conveyor belt to mass incarceration. I felt like the prosecutor was one player in the game. The court-appointed attorney was another player, the judge was another player […] and I was just on this conveyor belt; each had a role to play.  I realized this guy was not willing to represent me, he was not going to fight for me. I got on the phone with family, friends. We were able to get an expensive private attorney and I went from [thinking] there’s no chance of getting bail to I don’t even know what they had for dinner that night in jail, because I was home two hours later.

When I left jail that day I had really mixed emotions. I felt like this is great, I’m getting home but what I saw was all these brown, Black and poor white folks still sitting in the county jail, who didn’t leave and did the same or less than I did to get there. It was when I left jail that day at 24 years old that I said, you know what, no matter how many years in prison they give me, someday I’m going to become an attorney and I’m going to work towards creating a just system. That still gives me chills to think about, because it was such a formative  moment in my life. My passion to become a lawyer stems from both my own challenges and my own privilege, while sitting in an exiting a county jail, and at age 24.

If you could go back and talk to 18-year-old Chris. Knowing where you are now, what would you say to 18 year old Chris and what would you say to other people?

CP: First thing I would say, especially if it’s in any way related to substance use trauma, mental illness, generational poverty, and generational trauma oppression is “let go of any type of guilt and shame.” I was filled with guilt and shame about myself, about my actions, and that actually kept me doing the stuff that I was doing. It was not conducive to seeking help. I felt crappy about harming other people, I felt crappy about harming myself, but I continued doing it until I was able to let go, until somebody told me there is another way to live.

That’s what began to change everything. For me that did come from seeking treatment, a 12 step program. What happened when I got to federal prison is this whole idea that everyone in prison is either a predator or prey and it’s just this constant battle and filled with violence, there is violence in prison – don’t get me wrong, that happens. But I had older, generally Black men, who took me under their wing and taught me how to eat healthy, taught me how to exercise, taught me about prayer and meditation.

They were sharing with us whether we were white, Black, or indigenous; they wanted to share their knowledge and pass that down. Oftentimes it was people who were taken from their – this makes me emotional- communities. You know, they were taken, and they couldn’t raise their own Black sons. Me, white kid from Maine, they were able to help raise me and help me become a man in those prisons.

What I would share is there’s a different way to live but it involves asking for help and accepting it. I had experiences that are  not going to be shown on MSNBC Lockup Raw, two guys sitting down from different races doing a Bible study together. Something like that doesn’t get the headlines. That helped save my life and it helped me develop my passion and my identity.

What do you think are the most important steps that incarcerated individuals can take after being released from prison?

CP: For each person that’s going to be different. The biggest issue for a lot of folks is taking care of basic needs. Housing is the number one barrier to successful reentry. As far as employment, if somebody is able to work, generally they can get a job. However, to get a job that feels meaningful to the person and provides a living wage is often incredibly difficult.

If I was just coming out of prison, I would be looking at housing, then I’d be looking at diving into higher education or learning a Union trade. Pathways towards financial success are important, and at the same time you’ve got to address the underlying causes and conditions present. Seeking help is even more fundamental than trying to find a good job. Making sure that I’m working through any kind of substance use disorder unresolved trauma. The formula is really internal healing and growth, met with external opportunity.

Chris Poulos’s German Shepherd, Katahdin (Lady Tah Tah) lays on her back, happy.

What have you  been working on recently?

CP: I recently started a new position. As I can see from the questions I got, you all know that I was executive director of Governor Inslee’s statewide reentry council for a little bit more than four years, and I just started a new role in kind of a very unlikely place where I never thought I would work which is within the actual Department of Corrections (DOC) under the leadership of the new secretary, Cheryl Strange, who’s the first woman secretary, first LGBT secretary and first secretary with a public health, instead of a corrections background to my knowledge.

 I got the opportunity to come into executive leadership of DOC, of all places, as a formerly incarcerated person. And interestingly enough today was the day that I graduated the CORE  Correctional Worker Academy, which was an intensive all day every day in person training, which is super weird because I’ve been doing most things virtual, and for the last three and a half weeks from 8am to 5pm I’ve been wrestling people, sitting in a classroom and learning all the stuff that a correctional officer would learn even though I’m not going to be a correctional officer (CO). I wanted to get as much of that same training as I could, because I’m always talking about having people inform decisions by lived experience. If I’m going to be making recommendations on how correctional officers should be treating people, how they should be trained, and how they should be educated, I wanted to directly experience that training myself so my lens would be informed not just by people telling me what it’s like but by actually going through it.

Was the training you were doing much different from what you usually do?

CP: Much different, I’m generally focused on Law and Policy and there was some of that. We went through some cases during the training because all the CO’s need to understand what is reasonably necessary when it comes to using force. I certainly didn’t think that when I got out of prison I’d ever want to feel handcuffs again. The last time I had handcuffs on was incredibly traumatic for me and to the credit of the training leaders at the DOC, they did approach me before and said “hey, this is part of this training, do you want to do it, are there accommodations, we can make for you?” and I said “I’m okay with trying it and seeing, and if I do have some kind of reaction, I’m okay with saying something about that too”.

What I found was, I can say without exception, all of the people that were in my class at this DOC training class, were doing it because they wanted to be a public service. They wanted to be able to have a job, to provide for their family, for themselves. They had a vision to help people successfully reenter after incarceration. What I hope is that same light that’s within them now, stays with them once they get to the actual prisons and experience the culture of the facilities themselves. That’s part of why I’m going to be doing the work that I’m doing. 

Life’s greatest lessons are often learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes. You are not your mistakes and you are not alone. In our society, formerly incarcerated individuals are treated like second-class citizens, but they are people just like everyone and worthy of second chances. Mental health is a serious issue, and affects everyone in some way. Chris’s story proves that with help, people can recover. Here is a link to resources provided by NAMI Seattle to connect those in need with support groups and a helpline to connect to more resources.