By Richard Gammill
Special to The PREVIEW
“This man is a career offender,” the judge pronounced as he imposed a 35-year prison sentence. “He is a danger to society who should simply be kept off the streets.”
Matthew Charles was convicted in 1996 of selling 216 grams of crack cocaine and illegally possessing a gun. However, his rap sheet included a long list of serious crimes, which caused the judge to impose the harsh penalty.
Soon after Matthew began serving his sentence, a friend gave him a Bible and then a minister helped him come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Matthew said, “Once I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, that inward spiritual change started to reflect itself outwardly … reflecting everything that had taken place on that February day in 1996.”
For the next 22 years, Matthew was a model prisoner, without a single disciplinary infraction. When President Donald Trump introduced him to the nation during his State of the Union address on Feb. 5, he said Matthew had completed more than 30 Bible studies, became a law clerk, taught GED classes and mentored fellow inmates.
Matthew was released from prison in 2016 under a new law that shortened prison sentences for prisoners convicted of certain drug offenses. Two years later, a court ruled that because of his prior offenses, he was ineligible for early release and he was sent back to prison.
During those two years of freedom, he volunteered at a food pantry and worked as a driver. He lived an exemplary life, guided by his deep sense of faith going back to his spiritual conversion in 1996. Matthew’s situation became widely known and a public clamor arose over his case, gaining attention from members of Congress and celebrities including Kim Kardashian West.
On Dec. 21, 2018, Trump signed legislation known as the First Step Act, which eased mandatory minimum drug sentences. A judge quickly ordered Matthew released from prison for the second time in three years. A month later, the entire nation learned his story of redemption.
Is the story of Matthew a rare exception to the popular idea that people seldom experience such a drastic life change? The ancient prophet Jeremiah expressed it this way: “Can a leopard change its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 33:23).
It is a basic tenet of the Christian faith that such change is not only possible, but is to be expected: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, KJV).
Shon Hopwood, one of Charles’ lawyers and an associate law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in an interview on NBC News, “I think what Matthew shows is that people can change, character’s not static and people can have redemption if given the opportunity to come out of federal prison and show they are a changed person.”
Matthew recognizes that he is seen as a model for “rehabilitated” inmates who will benefit from the new law. More than 2,000 crack offenders are now eligible to seek early release under the First Step Act. However, his experience went beyond rehabilitation.
He said, “The change that happened within me was stronger than just rehabilitation. It changed me personally. It made me want to obey the law and be a better person.”
Matthew plans to be an advocate for those who are on the same path to freedom he has taken.
He said, “Since I was incarcerated for 22 years, I want to take advantage of that situation and speak on behalf of those who have also changed.”
By Richard Gammill