Matthew Charles’ life has seen some extraordinary turns recently. After spending 21 years in prison on a 35-year sentence, he was released in 2016. He walked out of prison with nothing, but soon created a full life for himself. It turned out, though, that his release was a mistake, and in May of 2018, he was sent back to serve out the rest of his sentence—more than a decade left to go. But on January 3 of this year, Matthew became one of the very first people to benefit from the First Step Act and was released again. On a visit to Washington, D.C., he got a chance to thank many of the lawmakers and people in the White House administration who supported the bill’s passage, including senators, Vice President Pence, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. And through it all, Matthew has stayed remarkably grounded.
Childhood was rough for Matthew Charles and his brothers and sisters. His family lived in cramped public housing in North Carolina, and his father was violent with Matthew and his brothers. Matthew got out of the chaos as soon as he could, joining the Army at age 18.
When he was discharged, though, it seemed he hadn’t really left any of that dysfunction and hopelessness behind him, and he started dealing drugs. What followed was nearly a decade during which he was, in his own words, a “dangerous criminal.” He spent about five years in prison.
At age 30, he was arrested for selling 216 grams of crack cocaine to an informant and illegally possessing a gun. He was given a 35-year sentence. At his sentencing in 1996, the judge described him as “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets.”
There would be few people who would disagree. But then something happened.
In prison Matthew could easily have crawled deeper into his shell of anger. But he didn’t. In fact, for the next two decades, Matthew didn’t receive a single disciplinary infraction. His prison life was directed at what the judge who resentenced him all those years later called “exemplary rehabilitation.” He immersed himself in Bible studies. He became a regular at the law library — but not just to work on his own case. He helped illiterate prisoners understand the letters they received from the courts, and he drafted filings for them. He took college courses and became a law clerk. And most important, Matthew became “genuinely repentant of his life before encountering the Grace of Christ, not offering empty excuses about his past, but taking ownership,” as a pastor would later describe him.
In 2013, Matthew applied for a sentence modification because the Sentencing Commission had retroactively lowered guideline ranges for drug offenses. At his resentencing hearing, Judge Kevin Sharp commended his rehabilitation and reduced Matthew’s sentence.
Matthew left prison in 2016. He didn’t have much to call his own at that point, but the positive outlook that he’d honed over decades behind bars helped him gain traction. He moved to Nashville, got a job as a driver, reconnected with his family, volunteered weekly at a food pantry called the Little Pantry That Could, and became deeply involved in his church. His boss praised his work as “meticulous,” and at the food pantry, the director said that Matthew was “one of the most amiable and friendly participants we have ever had.”
But after a year and half of freedom, the court reversed the reduction in sentence, citing an error in his release. Remarkably, Matthew was sent back to prison. He was determined to keep bitterness at bay, but going back to prison was incredibly difficult for Matthew—and many people felt the same way. A local reporter told his sad story, and celebrities and advocacy groups threw their support to his cause, hoping he might receive executive clemency.
In the end, though, it was the First Step Act that saved Matthew from decades more behind bars. Signed into law by President Trump December 21, 2018, the bill includes a provision to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, which the government agreed would allow for Matthew’s immediate release.
On January 3, 2019, he left prison. A man of few words, he nonetheless has many smiles, especially for the people who supported him after his return to prison and championed the legislation that released him for the second time. He has thrown himself into advocacy, appearing on Facebook Live, television, and his story has been covered by NPR, New York Times, Dana Perino, and more.
Matthew’s remarkable story has inspired many people into action. Would you like to join them and help FAMM work for reform that will impact people still serving absurdly long sentences? We can’t do it without you! Become a FAMM Advocate today.