Noah Kilroy

 Board Member Noah Kilroy talks to the Newport Daily News about his aspirations of becoming a public interest lawyer.

Changing Sides: Former Law Breaker Will Study to be a Lawyer

April 12, 2010 - 2:15pm

By Sean Flynn

Daily News Staff, The Newport Daily News

April 3-4, 2010

Noah Kilroy was sitting in a prison cell for each of his birthdays between the ages of 19 and 23.  Now, as a recent graduate of Salve Regina University, he will enter law school in September with high aspirations of becoming a public interest lawyer. 

Between 1998 and 2003, he served first a six-month sentence at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston for delivery of cocaine, followed by a two-year sentence at the ACI for possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.  Finally, he served a two-year sentence in a Florida prison for trafficking in cocaine.

Kilroy grew up in Newport, attending Carey School, Thompson Middle School and Rogers High School.  Abandoned by his biological mother, he was a foster child before white parents in the Fifth Ward adopted him and his siblings.  He dropped out of Rogers after his junior year to be on his own.  

Working part time as a cook at Newport Creamery for $7 an hour was a "struggle," and he wasn't making enough money to pay even the rent, he said. 

"I moved to Woonsocket where drugs were rampant," he said.  "My girldfriend's mother was into drugs.  I asked her to introduce me to her dealer and I started selling small amounts on the street."

Dealing drugs became the focus of his life.  At the time, he scrambled to be a success in his new profession, "if you can call it that," he said.  "I networked.  If you can move product, you turn down offers from other suppliers.  I wanted to increase my profit margin."

When he reflects now on what he was doing, he pulls no punches.

"I quickly became immersed in a vicious cycle, destroying the lives of other people to selfishly nourish the void in my own," he wrote in a personal statement submitted as part of his law school application.

He was 18 when he was first arrested. 

"I was in a crack house in Woonsocket selling to customers.  Undercover detectives came in and I sold to them," he said.

After serving his six months, he was released, but went back to selling cocaine.

"I thought, 'These cops are not smarter than me,"' he said.  "I never had a chenical addiction, but I was addicted to the lifestyle.  It had given me an identity."

One rainy night at about 2a.m., he swerved into the lane of a police crusier.  The officers found a package of cocaine on him and he was sent to the ACI for two years.

After he was released from prison for the second time, his mother and father took him back to his childhood home, but he could not give up his life as a dealer.

"After my first two arrests, I had this persistence in me," he said.  "For me, it was understanding how the business went.  I thought I could correct the operation.  I wanted to persevere.  I knew I had to get to the ports to get larger quantities and more potent stuff. 

"I ended up flying to Florida, buying at the drug docks and driving back here," he said.  "I prospered for a while, a short while."

FLORIDA ARREST IS A LIFE-CHANGER

The Federal Drug Enforcement Agency arrested him in Jacksonville, FLa., after he made a puchase in Miami.  He was carrying two kilograms of cocaine with a street value of almost $250,000.  The mandatory minimum sentence for possessing that amount of cocaine was 15 years, Kilroy said.

"I wanted to plea bargain, but they didn't offer it to me," he said.  "My co-defendant- my supplier- said I was the kingpin."

It turned out Newport narcotics detectives had been investigating Kilroy and when Miami prosecutors contacted them, they cast doubt on the premise that he could have filled that role.

"My supplier's statement worked against him in the end," Kilroy said.  "I got two years in a plea bargain.  It saved by life.  To do 15 years at that age would have been devastating."

The Florida arrest and subsequent prison term would become a life-changer.

"I burnt the bridge to my parents," he said.  "They were completely humiliated.  In prison, I had solid reflection time.  I thought, 'I'm losing a lot of family and friends.'

"In prison, I did a moral inventory of myself," he said.  "What I was doing had the potential to destroy me and others. 

"Solitude does something to you," he said.  "In your darkest hours,you find clarity about your life."

He remembered reading a book by a psychologist who wrote," Without knowledge of yourself, you can't have knowledge of anything else, because you have nothing to compare it to."

"You have to dissect yourself," Kilroy said.  "Maladapted people think their actions are normal."

He discovered reading at the Lawtey Correctional Institution in Florida.  "That became my passion," he said.  "I got my G.E.D. when I was at the ACI, but I had no real education because I didn't have a desire to learn."

Now, he wanted to learn as much as possible.

After he was released from the Florida prison in 2003, he enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island, studying at the Providence and Lincoln campuses.

He did not have stable living arrangements.

"I was sleeping on couches," he said.  "I was staying with one person here, another person there.  One thing I knew; I was not going back to selling drugs."

He achieved a 3.7 grade point average his first year at CCRI and was able to transfer to Salve Regina.

He had enjoyed playing football at Rogers High School and was determined to play again at Salve.

"I got into shape and started my last year at cornerback," he said.

He majored in social work at Salve.

"I saw a lot of things in prison," he said.  "I've been exposed to a lot of systems-- the DCYF (Department of Children, Youth and Families) system, the penal system, the judicial system.  I've seen the injustices in these systems from the perspective of the recipient. 

"I wanted to understand the underpinnings of advocacy and social work," he said.  "Salve really challenged my thought.  I learned the theoretical framework of advocacy.  What I learned in prison, I bounced off these theories.  It has strengthened me."

EXPERIENCE IN THE FIELD

During his years at Salve, he also did internships, including one at OpenDoors, an agency that assists ex-convicts and successfully ran a campaign in 2006 to restore their voting rights.  Kilroy was part of that campaign and continues to work with the organization.  Now, he is teaching a class to some of the agency's clients.

"He's very bright and extremely driven," said Sol Rodriguez, executive director of OpenDoors.  "From the very beginning, he said he wanted to go to law school.  There are definitely obstructions to that when you have a felony conviction, but they're not insurmountable."

When people go to prison, their mistakes are never forgiven, she said.  But people can turn their lives around.

"Noah is a testament to that," she said.  "He really wants to help the guys who are getting out.  A lot of people want to get as far away from that experience as possible.  Noah is not like that."

"I hope to act as a guiding light for others," Kilroy said.  "I saw them in prison.  I was one of the lucky few to dodge a major bullet and get another chance.  I'll always have the stigma of being an ex-con.  I won't hide that.  But I have something I can bring to the table.  Prison put me on a trajetory for my life's work.

Kilroy also did an internship with Rhode Island Legal Services, which provides public defenders to the indigent.

"Noah was very conscientious," said Kevin Hall, who was chief social worker at the office when Kilroy was there but has since left.

"He worked hard to understand clinical theory and apply it to clients' behavior and their lives," Hall said.  "Through the life he led and his intelligence, he is in a position to effectively advocate for people and help them make good decisions.  He did really well on the job."

Kilroy is now ready for the next step in his life.

"I knew it would not be easy, applying to study law with a rap sheet," he said.  "I just hoped someone would connect with my story and see I have something to offer."

He was accepted a thte University of Detroit Mercy School of Law for the fall of this year.  He would rather stay in this area, and is hoping to get accepted at the Roger Williams University School of Law this spring. 

"I want to do work and make a difference here," he said.

He would like to work for change in the public defender system that provides legal help to the indigent.

"That's where my passion is," he said.

While going to Salve, Kilroy was helping raise his 4-year-old daughter.

"That has humbled me and given me a responsibility to be a model for my daughter," he said.

He would like to finish law school and show others who are down and out that it's not hopeless.

"I know there are a lot of youth out there struggling," he said.  "I'd tell them never be afraid to dream.  I'd like my story to be an inspiration."

Send reporter Sean Flynn e-mail at Flynn@NewportRI.com

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