In 2016, Matthew Charles walked out of prison after serving 21 years of a 35-year sentence. Although he had very little to start with, he embraced his second chance at life. He found a job, reconnected with his family, and was a good and caring citizen.
But in 2018, Matthew received bad news: he was going back to prison. He learned that the U.S. Department of Justice won an appeal claiming that he was ineligible for early release due to a previous sentence served in state prison. The ruling garnered national attention. Almost 140,000 people signed a petition demanding his sentence be commuted.
In December 2018, President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law, which included sentencing reforms. And while the sentencing reforms under the new law were modest, they were life-changing for Matthew.
On January 3, 2019, Matthew Charles became one of the very first people to be released under the FIRST STEP Act.
Prison Fellowship® editor Maria Mallory White recently sat down with Matthew to learn more about his past and what he’s doing now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Prison Fellowship: Let's start by getting a sense of your story. How did you come to be incarcerated?
Matthew Charles: I was brought up in a physically and verbally abusive home. For years, me, my siblings, and my mother endured that. After high school, I ended up going into the military. There was a form of verbal and mental abuse there, too.
And because I was brought up in that type of environment, I had the wrong type of attitude and behavior. I just started spiraling downhill. One bad decision led to another. After I was released from state prison, I felt the only way to—I hate say "succeed" or "be able to make it"—was to become a drug dealer.
During the '80s, crack cocaine was becoming prevalent on the street. The people who dealt it had money, had the cars, and the glamor and the glitz. It attracted me and lured me, and I became a drug dealer. It was in Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1995, when I was arrested for federal drug crimes for selling crack cocaine.
What was your experience in prison like?
In state prison, I did five years, and I came out unchanged because, like I stated, I was still young and had the wrong type of attitude and perception of life. I hadn't become a Christian at that time, so I just felt it was just another way of life. My everyday life in state prison was just waking up, going through the rigamaroles, the routine of just being incarcerated.
'During the '80s, crack cocaine was becoming prevalent on the street. The people who dealt it had money, had the cars, and the glamor and the glitz.'
In December 1995, you were arrested again and sent to Clarksville Montgomery County Jail in Tennessee. A fellow prisoner there gave you a Gideon Bible?
Yes. I was surprised because me and him had never even talked about God or religion before. I didn't believe in God because He never showed up and rescued me or my siblings in that abusive household nor came to my mother's aid. I took it because it was a gift, but I had no intention of reading it.
But after he left, I ended up reading it, and I read it from Genesis to Revelation. From that point on, I just started going back and reading it. My second time of reading it through, I started attending some of the Bible studies that were offered in the county jail.
Shortly after that I ended up accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as my own personal Savior and openly confessed that at an altar call. From that point on, things just started dramatically changing for the better in my life. It was just amazing.
I had never read the Bible before. I never seriously attend any church, but it was the stories in it that just caused me to go back and read it again.
'I had never read the Bible before …
but it was the stories in it that just caused me to go back and read it again.'
What was your incarceration like after you became a Christian?
I received a 35-year sentence, and I was taken to federal prison. Once I got there, I went to the chapel to see what days they had service and what else was going on as far as Bible studies. In doing so, I ended up meeting some other Christians.
Through everyday living—just reading the Bible, trying to live this new transformed life and trying to learn all I can about the faith that I had accept—it just caused me to make the right decisions throughout the course of my incarceration. I ended up having to take a GED test because it wasn’t documented in my pre-sentencing report that I had my high school diploma. Because I scored relatively high on it, I was asked to be a GED tutor.
As a GED tutor, I was able to see that there were people that were actually illiterate in that prison. Some were at second- and third-grade levels. So, for eight years I was able to exercise my faith in Christ in helping them and showing love and also allowing them to be able to raise up their literacy skills. I enjoyed that job.
I later worked in the law library as a law clerk for five years when that position became available. We would assist other inmates in their legal work, as well as understanding letters from their attorneys and what needed to be filed with the court.
Had God not actually changed my heart, I wouldn't have even thought about or considered anybody other than myself because, [for] my whole life, that's all I considered. It was just me against the world ever since I was born.
'I was able to exercise my faith in Christ in helping [my fellow prisoners] and showing love.'
How did your work as a clerk impact your journey?
By me working in the law library, I was able to see publications that were coming in from court and in the legal newsletters showing what laws were changing. There's a thing called the United States Sentencing Commission, and they have the right to amend laws or make them retroactive.
And in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act came out, which allowed the crack cocaine ratio to be lowered to 18:1, as opposed to the 100:1 ratio. That was in comparison to regular powder cocaine. Well, that right there allowed me to have a 14-year sentence, rather than my 35-year sentence. I filed a petition with the court asking them to reduce my sentence based on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville actually granted my petition, brought me in for a hearing, and reduced my sentence.
I still had to come back and serve a remaining nine months, and then I was set free. But the government appealed because they stated the Act wasn't retroactive—it only reached those that were now being sentenced.
Matthew Charles answers questions at the Second Chance Month 2019 Gala alongside Heather Rice-Minus, Vice President of Government Affairs & Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship.
What happened after that?
I was released in 2016. June 14. I was given bus fare and meal fare to make it to a federal halfway house in Nashville. There, I was told to go out and find employment.
Matthew reentered society, found employment, started volunteering and giving back to the community. And then he found out that he was being ordered back to prison by the Court of Appeals to serve out the rest of his original sentence.
What was the response to the Court of Appeals' decision? Did you have support?
My friend John Hairston in Texas was reaching out to the media, stating,
This person has already served over 20 years on a nonviolent drug offense. He's been volunteering his time, he has a church home, and a job and a vehicle, and they're telling him he has to return to prison.
John reached out to an NPR reporter named Jullieta Martinelli. She ended up coming down and interviewing me to see if it was true.
And that’s what actually brings me to the point where I am today. Had she not done that, my case wouldn’t have been showcased at a higher level. People who heard my story were all surprised and amazed, actually startled, that this was taking place because they understood the difference between the sentence I received in ’96 and the sentence I could receive after 2010.
I was ordered to return to prison May 14 of 2018. Jullieta also did a story showing me turning myself in to the United States Marshals, and that’s when it really caught media attention, and everybody came out and spoke on my behalf.
But during that time there was a thing called the FIRST STEP Act. And the FIRST STEP Act was some legislation that actually didn’t affect me until—I want to say, two months prior to it being passed. The FIRST STEP Act had some legislation in it that reduced recidivism, and it allowed you to take rehabilitative programs while in prison, and it was giving the judges discretion to go below mandatory minimum sentences.
But all those things didn't affect me because the only thing that was holding me bound was the non-retroactivity of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changes.
So, what changed?
The FIRST STEP Act was going through some amendments. In November, I was watching a news report at the Leitchfield, Kentucky, jail, where I was being held before going back to a federal prison in South Carolina to serve my remaining 10 years. And I heard Sen. Rand Paul state that the FIRST STEP Act gave judges discretion to go below the mandatory order; it allowed the judge to be able to sentence a person to drug treatment as opposed to incarceration; it allowed women to no longer be shackled [during labor]; and it made retroactive the changes to the 2010 sentencing guidelines.
How did you get out?
On New Year's Day, I was called up by the guards and told I had legal mail. And I knew that on holidays, the federal government don't do anything. It was a motion from my attorneys to the court asking them to release me in light of the president signing the FIRST STEP Act into existence.
And then on January 3, I was called up to those same front jail bars again by the prison staff and told I needed to call my attorneys. "It's an emergency situation."
I called my federal public defenders in Nashville, and they were like, "Have you heard? Have you heard?" And I'm like, "Heard what?" I'm thinking something else kind of bad had happened. And then they were telling me,
You're going home. The judge signed you an immediate release this morning.
We're trying to get you out of there this afternoon.
I was able to talk with the attorneys for a while, and then, I just hung up and shared with the other people that were in there, and we all just rejoiced because that FIRST STEP Act was the first piece of major legislation in over three decades.
We all just rejoiced because that FIRST STEP Act
was the first piece of major legislation in over three decades.
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