Recently, we wrote about the FIRST STEP Act — the basics of what it is, why it’s necessary, and how it can be a major game changer in the fight to stop recidivism in the United States.
Indeed, recidivism is a huge issue in America, and we have to work harder to help educate our friends and family about it. Without these heartfelt conversations happening over dinner tables, in coffee shops, and at bars and restaurants all over, we are destined to come up short.
Part of sharing anything like this with the people in your life is having a story to tell. Time after time, when it comes to changing people’s minds, it boils down to stories. That’s how films like Brubaker starring Robert Redford (based on the true story in the book Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Tom Murton and Joe Hyams) have such a dramatic impact on our culture — and lead to actionable change.
It’s these stories that give us context, and allow us to release ourselves from the vacuum of mere thought experiments and move into the actuality of the real world. Unfortunately, we have to tell the sad stories of people who have been unjustly victimized themselves by the system in order to make a difference in stopping recidivism.
It’s with this in mind that we turn to Matthew Charles, of Nashville, Tennessee. One of the first beneficiaries of the FIRST STEP Act, his story is essential for finding success in this endeavor. And we need his story to spread like wildfire.
In 1996, at the age of 30, Matthew Charles was arrested for selling crack cocaine to an informant as well as the illegal possession of a firearm. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing, Matthew was sentenced to 35 years in prison. For context here, there are murderers and rapists who have received significantly less prison time. Furthermore, had he sold powdered cocaine instead, a significantly more potent and prospectively deadly substance, the mandatory minimum laws wouldn’t have affected him, likely resulting in a much lighter sentence.
As it happened, Matthew Charles could have, like a large chunk of the prison population, gone down the rabbit hole of violence and further criminal activity while incarcerated. Instead, Matthew dedicated himself to improving his life while behind bars.
Over the course of nearly twenty years, he didn’t receive a single disciplinary infraction. He worked to better himself, studying at the law library. He helped other inmates who were illiterate research their own rights in their own cases, going far beyond only himself. His selfless service to others was a large contributing factor in his eventual success in getting his sentence modified in 2013.
In 2016, he was released from prison. He took a job as a driver in Nashville and got to work reconnecting with his family. Additionally, he volunteered weekly at his local food bank. He was a model former convict and praised by the judge at his sentence modification hearing.
But then, a year and a half later, the court reversed its decision, stating that it had made an error in releasing him. He was immediately sent back to prison, ripped away from the new life that he had worked so hard to create for himself — a grievous injustice.
How the FIRST STEP Act Changed Everything
I try to sit here and think about how I would have reacted to going back to prison, after being told by every authority that I was a model inmate for others. If someone like that can be unjustly sent back to prison, just imagine what it’s like for the average prisoner.
It would be really easy in this situation to be angry with the system, and to fall into a deep depression. It would be easy to simply curse the world and say, “I did everything I was asked and more to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had changed, and still, it isn’t enough to truly get justice in America.” No one can really say how they would handle this situation until they face it. And Matthew Charles actually faced it.
But he didn’t push back. He didn’t become bitter and hateful. He continued to be the rock that he was during his prior incarceration. And people rallied to his cause.
They used his situation to have the FIRST STEP Act passed through Congress and signed by the President. After this, the government and Matthew’s attorney both agreed that the law allowed for his immediate release. On January 3, 2019, Matthew Charles was released from prison for the last time.
“And Justice for All…”
In an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post, Matthew noted, “There are many people still serving decades-long sentences who have rehabilitated themselves, like I did. Unfortunately, most Americans do not see or hear from them, and they are not given a real opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed.”
He comments further that he feels blessed, but that all of these circumstances were also helped along by luck. That is a particularly gripping concept, that the man’s actions alone were insufficient to earn his release. He required luck — luck that not everyone will receive.
In order for the United States to fulfill its contract with its citizens, we must ensure that justice is applied to all. Luck is not justice. This is why RED is more motivated than ever to provide actionable change in the lives of inmates everywhere. Because until our system is truly just for all, people like Matthew Charles need advocates; advocates like RED, yes — but also advocates like you.
Ultimately, we have the government we deserve, in the way we vote, and in the stories that we tell one another. In school everyday, children recite the pledge of allegiance, ending in the words “and justice for all.” These cannot simply become words that we say to make us feel better about our nation. Rather, they must be a call to a higher standard, a more equal status quo, and justice that doesn’t merely work for some, but justice that is truly for all.