RECAP: Matthew served time behind bars for a drug crime. After the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, he petitioned the District Court for resentencing based on the new changes and that petition was granted. However, the court later ruled that he was ineligible for release under the Fair Sentencing Act, and after Matthew turned himself in, he was reincarcerated.
All in all, Matthew served 22 years behind bars before he was finally released after the passage of the FIRST STEP Act. Prison Fellowship® recently spoke with Matthew about what life has been like since his release and what he believes are America’s next steps in criminal justice reform.
Prison Fellowship: When you realized that you had to return to prison—that you were going to lose your newfound freedom once again—where were you and God in that moment?
Matthew Charles: It's funny, NPR reporter, Jullieta Martinelli, [who reported the story for a national audience], she asked me the same thing. She asked me, do I still have faith? I was like, "Are you talking about faith in God or faith in man? My faith in God is strong because of things that God has done in my life. My faith in God has remained the same, stable."
And I said, "But my faith in man is kind of in question."
Matthew Charles answers questions at the Second Chance Month 2019 Gala alongside Marcus Bullock, founder and CEO of Flikshop (left), and Heather Rice-Minus, Vice President of Government Affairs & Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship.
I still had faith that something would work, but I was disheartened to find out that I had to return [to prison]. I didn't lose faith in God, but I kind of lost faith in man or the system.
'My faith in God is strong because of things that God has done in my life. My faith in God has remained the same, stable.'
Why did your faith in God remain secure?
Well, that's my testimony. Now, in February of 1996, I gave my heart and life over to the Lord Jesus Christ. I used to be a hard person—and when I say "hard," I'm talking about like brick-wall hard. That was my attitude. It was me against the world.
Once I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, that wall started to crack. I was reading through the Bible, and there was one of the proverbs, and when I finished reading it, it was like a well of emotion raised up in me, and I just cried. The brick wall cracked. I'm in a jail cell in a county jail, crying for no real apparent reason.
I hadn't cried since I was like 12 or 13. My father used to throw me up against brick walls and whip me. So, I was like brick-wall hard—no emotion no matter what took place. And now I'm crying like a newborn baby that's hungry for no reason, and the cry was so refreshing.
God showed me love and protection throughout my entire relationship with Him. Even today—the people coming to my rescue concerning [housing], and the job I was given at FAMM—just shows that God has continued to bestow His love upon me and open doors for me.
Your story attracted attention and was celebrated nationally. What has life been like since your release?
Well, because of the national attention, I actually was able to attend the State of the Union. I've been stated by some of the organizations as being a spokesman for criminal justice reform. I've been allowed to speak on behalf of those things that are implemented in the FIRST STEP Act.
And then I was hired by FAMM in February to be a criminal justice fellow. That has given me a platform to go around and speak with legislators at different states, as well as some governors and with some organizations, just about the need for criminal justice reform. I don't like to say I'm just giving back—I consider myself helping others that are still incarcerated that desire and deserve a second chance just like I was given.
'God showed me love and protection throughout my entire relationship with Him.'
The FIRST STEP Act still won’t reach the majority of those that are still locked up, that I left behind. I use my platform to speak on behalf of them as well as share other ideas regarding criminal justice reform, showing how they can be reached.
If you want to reduce the [overincarceration] numbers we have in the United States, there's going to have to be some bolder steps taken.
Why is the FIRST STEP Act so important to our nation?
To me, the FIRST STEP Act—even without addressing the non-retroactive of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010—is important and a great piece of legislation. Instead of just locking a person up and then when their time is up, letting them out whether they've learned anything or not, the FIRST STEP Act gives a person an incentive for taking those rehabilitative programs. The things that I did and accomplished while I was incarcerated, I did to personally better myself because I was a Christian, and that's what I expected of myself as well as what God expected of me.
Now, the FIRST STEP Act allows incentives to be given to people to take those programs to rehabilitate themselves. When they are released, they can find employment and don't have to worry about returning to prison because they don't feel the need to do so.
How important is it for the prisoner to make that decision to apply themselves?
Prisoners have the "I don't care" mentality towards rehabilitation because nobody else really cares for them. They've been locked up, and they've been given a specific amount of time that they have to serve, and it doesn't matter if they better themselves or not. But with the FIRST STEP Act now available to them, it allows them to say,
Mark Holden, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Koch Industries, Inc. (left), with Matthew Charles and Craig DeRoche, Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy at Prison Fellowship.
OK, I'm being given a second chance. Society does care that I better myself, that I learn a trade. I may have siblings or a wife to return to, so I want to be able to show them that I've changed, as well as be able to get a job that allows me to make a living wage so that I can support them upon my return.
This was a bipartisan bill that passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, so they can't say that one particular party cares about them and the other one doesn't. They can't say that society is not willing to give them a second chance because we know that it is. They're willing to walk beside you as long as you continue to walk.
So, it breaks the mindset of "nobody cares" and that "rehabilitation is not part of incarceration." Because for a long time, it wasn't. During my sentence, I served without any disciplinary infraction, which it's easy to get one for simple things. None of that was taken into account in the government's decision or the Court of Appeals' decision to send me back. Whereas now [under the FIRST STEP Act], that is one of the primary focuses that allows the judge to reduce a sentence and actually let somebody else out early.
It's clear from your witness and your testimony that what the FIRST STEP Act has done is tremendous. But what else still needs to happen in federal reform?
On the federal level, the majority of the people given life sentences or 30 years or more based on the federal sentencing guidelines of the late '80s, the '90s, and of the early 2000s are locked into those sentences. That means there is no judicial recourse for anyone who has been sentenced and say, for instance, has already been in prison for three years, because that means his direct appeal is over. His right to file a 2255, which is a post-rehabilitative motion, has expired. So therefore, the court doesn’t have to receive anything from this [prisoner] no matter if he has a significant claim, because they'll state that he should have used due diligence and filed a claim earlier in the process of his incarceration instead of later.
In order to reach those people that are still locked up with 30 years or better or life sentences, the 85% that you actually serve on a federal sentence I believe has to be lowered to 65%. It's still a significant period of time. And you've got to realize that these people have already been sentenced—overly sentenced because of the war on drugs. That was a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality. The only way you're going to reduce the numbers of [overincarceration] is to get those that are already in prison being warehoused, out.
'The only way you're going to reduce the numbers of [overincarceration] is to get those that are already in prison being warehoused, out.'
So, it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card—it's saying you've already satisfied this term of incarceration. Which, as far as I'm concerned, was way more than what was appropriate for the crime you committed, especially the nonviolent crimes.
So, what are the primary things that you could advise our readers to do to take action to make sure that this momentum that started with the FIRST STEP Act and other reforms keeps moving?
Since we're speaking about the Christian family, the Christian Church: The Bible is the book of second chances. But some churches don't like to speak about people that are in prison. Or they don't like to hear it if someone stands up in the church and testifies how God delivered them, watched over them, and protected them while imprisoned. And that's my whole testimony.
There are people—95% of people that are incarcerated—who are one day going to be returned to society. These people also desire your prayers, your love, and your support.
So, I would say, pray for us. Employ us. Speak to other friends that may have jobs to give people that have been released from prison a second chance. And just get involved in the community and with organizations that are already doing criminal justice reform.
Matthew, Thank you.
Thank you. I appreciate you for having me. I don't often get to give my testimony. I would not even be here had it not been for Christ and the change He's made in my life.
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