At age 58, Matthew Charles has already spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars. In 1996, he was convicted on drug and gun charges in connection with selling crack cocaine to a police informant, and sentenced to 35 years.
Charles served 20 years before he was freed in early 2016, six years after the Obama Administration reduced sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders like him.
Since his release, Charles landed a full-time job, spent every weekend volunteering at a food pantry, and secured stable housing. But while he worked to build a new life, the U.S. Justice Department successfully appealed his sentence reduction, citing his previous incarceration as a disqualifying factor for early release. This past March, Judge Aleta Trauger, who supported Charles’ initial release, begrudgingly reimposed his sentence stating that her “hands were tied.”
The days leading up to his return to custody are revealed in a feature for Nashville Public Radio published Friday (May 25). The story, which begins with a goodbye party thrown for Charles, details his childhood in public housing, and how he enlisted in the U.S. Army at 18, to escape the disfunction of home. Things didn’t go much better in the service though, as Charles had issues with authority and was dishonorably discharged.
He returned to Tennessee to start over, but admitted to being angry and physically abusive to a former girlfriend. He also attempted an armed carjacking, which resulted in Charles, then in his 20s, serving the first of two prison sentences.
By 1996, Charles was arrested and convicted again, this time for selling drugs and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. At the time, the mandatory sentence for a crack was 30 years. “I had closed up and gone into a shell,” Charles told a reporter for Nashville Public Radio. “I told you one time that 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.”
By all accounts, Charles is described as an exemplary example of a reformed inmate. He exhibited model behavior in prison, taught GED courses, became a law clerk, and helped fellow inmates understand their own legal battles. In fact, the judge that reviewed his case in 2016 reduced Charles’ sentence noted that “you couldn’t discount what had happened while he was in prison.”
Today, Charles is serving his time at a medium security facility in South Carolina. Meanwhile, his story went viral over the weekend, and a Change.org petition has been launched requesting that President Donald Trump commute his sentence.