When someone is convicted of a crime, their punishment is prison. But aside from just being a punishment, a ‘penitentiary’ is ideally supposed to reform a person, making them a better member of society after they come out, than they were when they went in.
Of course, that isn’t always the case. Plenty of people in prison have been in and out multiple times. So when a person actually does turn over a new leaf and become a model citizen, they should be celebrated and rewarded with freedom. But one man would find out that even after doing everything right, the justice system isn’t always perfect…
As he pulled up to her house and walked through the tall wooden gate, he was greeted by happy shouts, laughter, and squirts of water from tiny novelty water guns — it’s a surprise party. The people gathered are Matthews friends, coworkers, and people he volunteers with…
On a Saturday afternoon in April 2018, Matthew was going to visit his girlfriend Naomi, just as he would any given weekend. Little did he know that she had been planning something for him, with the help of some friends.
Matthew, a man of few words, stands silently for a moment then, with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, he simply says “alright.” That’s when the backyard bbq begins in earnest with Matthew as the guest of honor, though the people aren’t there to celebrate a happy occasion.
While the gathering is a celebration of Matthew, it’s colored with a note of sadness, even more so than most going away parties. That’s because in just a short while, he’s going to prison for a long time.
What’s even more unusual is that Matthew hadn’t committed any crimes since Bill Clinton was president. It all began when he was just a kid growing up in a difficult home. Matthew’s father was a violent man with him and his siblings so, when he turned 18, he turned to the Army as a path to escape from the dysfunction and poverty of his childhood.
Anger And Frustration
It worked well for him while he was in the service but after his time with the Army ended, Matthew was back in the same place, mentally, full of anger and frustration. Not seeing many options for a better life, he turned to selling drugs. When he sold crack to a police informant in 1995, he was picked up by the cops…
It was an open and shut case, essentially all over but for the sentencing right from the start. The judge described him as “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets.” When the staggering sentence of 35 years in federal prison came down, Matthew said no one was sad to see him go, not even him.
“I had closed up and gone into a shell,” he said. “I felt like I was hard as a brick building, as hard as a rock. And I had to be because feelings didn’t matter there. And if you had feelings you allowed yourself to be hurt even more.” But obviously, something had to change between the angry criminal he was then to the respected friend he had become…
During his time in prison, Matthew took college classes and correspondence courses, taught a GED program, and even became a law clerk. He used that training to help other incarcerated inmates understand their cases. He became a trusted figure, known for keeping the secrets of the illiterate, reading their court letters and drafting filings for them.
Inside, he also organized bible studies and tried to act as a mentor to newcomers. Over the course of 21 years, Matthew turned his life around, not having a single disciplinary infraction as he was moved from maximum to eventually low security…
Then in 2016, something changed. The justice department changed the guidelines for sentencing of crack related crimes, adjusting the penalties to be more in line with other narcotics. That meant one simple thing for Matthew: freedom. His 35-year sentence was cut short and just like that, he was a free man.
Just as he had started doing in prison, Matthew continued on the path of building a proper life for himself. Over the course of 2 years, he secured himself a steady job, moved out of a halfway house and into an apartment, and started dating. He became enmeshed in his church community and even continued his weekly volunteering that was part of his probation long after he was no longer required to…
So why was this man, who was the very ideal of rehabilitation, being sent back to prison? In short, a federal judge said that his release in 2016 had been an “error.” Due to the fact that before his federal drug charge, Matthew had spent some time in state prison, he was considered a “career offender” and the change in the law shouldn’t have applied to him.
My Hands Are Tied
The judge who presided over the case described it as “sad” and even commended Matthew on his “exemplary rehabilitation.” But, she said, “her hands were tied.” Matthew was to return to prison and serve out the remainder of his 35 year sentence…
With only 45 days of freedom left, Matthew’s attention now turned to getting his affairs in order. Some things were easy enough , returning his SUV to the car dealership, informing his landlord of the last day he’d be in the apartment, and donating every possession he could to charity. But all of those things were just possessions.
Far more difficult was saying goodbye to family and friends. He visited all of his siblings and had a difficult conversation with his girlfriend Naomi. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s a conversation you don’t want to talk about.” By the time Matthew got out again, he would be in his 60s and, since prison is notoriously bad for the health of older men, probably wouldn’t be in the best shape…
It’s Going To Be Hard
Still, they tried to make plans for Naomi to visit Matthew every weekend, which would have been possible if the judge’s efforts to have him incarcerated in a nearby prison were successful. Unfortunately, he found out he would be locked up in a facility 9 hours drive away.
We Need Reforms
“The whole thing pisses me off to be honest,” said John Hairston, an old friend of Matthew’s. “But it underscores how big a need there is for some reform in the justice system. I don’t care what they say.” But before those reforms come, if they ever do, Matthew will be behind bars…
“My reality today was I woke up this morning with Naomi,” Matthew said of his last day of freedom. “We went to Shoney’s to eat breakfast. We were able to move according to our own accord. Whereas tomorrow, they’ll tell me when I can eat breakfast, when I can move, when I can shower or go to the rec yard. They’ll control my life.”
A Great Life
Still, Matthew Charles tries to remain positive about his situation. “Here’s a man who’s changed, right? Some see the changes and others don’t want to see. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to change back. I didn’t do it for the US Attorney’s office to say ‘Charles has been a good boy, let’s give him a break.’ No, I’m going to continue to live out this new life. It’s a great life.”