Dear President Trump,
At the White House Prison Reform Summit (Summit) on May 18, 2018, you highlighted some of the many challenges that inmates faced when reentering society and shared your vision for prison reform that focuses on rehabilitation and redemption. You correctly stated, “our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.” It’s in this very spirit that I am writing to introduce you to a man who is the embodiment of the type of rehabilitation you envision, Mr. Matthew Charles.
Growing up, Mr. Charles did not enjoy the type of life you or I had. Like many former inmates, his life was shaped while living in government housing amidst total dysfunction, poverty, and with a violent father. When he turned 18, Mr. Charles joined the Army hoping to escape.
Once his service ended, Mr. Charles found a difficult transition to civilian life and turned to a life of crime. He accumulated multiple criminal charges, and similar to many other boys who grew up without a stable home, he became a statistic. By the time that Mr. Charles was arrested, he admitted that “No one was sad to see him go. Not even him.”
In 1996, Mr. Charles was sentenced to 35 years for distributing crack cocaine to an informant. Admittedly, he says that when he first arrived in prison, he was “right where he deserved to be.” Arguably, he was right where he needed to be.
Mr. President, as you mentioned at the Summit, prisoners have a central role in their own rehabilitation. Although the Department of Justice controlled almost every aspect of his life, while incarcerated Mr. Charles decided to take control of what few aspects he could: his mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. He found religion, took college classes and correspondence programs, and even became a law clerk.
While behind bars, Mr. Charles began what has become a lifelong initiative of giving back to the community. He used his knowledge and training to help other inmates understand the legal system. Mr. Charles read letters from the Court for those who were illiterate and helped explain the judicial process to those whose public defenders had moved on. He even taught GED classes.
Aside from legal assistance, Mr. Charles also provided emotional and spiritual guidance to his fellow inmates. He organized two Bible studies and counseled newcomers. During the 21 years he was behind bars, he never even received a disciplinary infraction. By all accounts, he was a model prisoner.
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act, an act of Congress was signed into law. The Act retroactively reduced the amount of crack cocaine required to initiate specific federal criminal penalties. Mr. Charles petitioned the Court to modify his sentencing based on the Act and was released in 2016.
While on the outside, Mr. Charles became a statistic but of a different kind. Mr. President as you stated, “As many as three in four individuals released from prison have difficulty finding work.” Mr. Charles is the one in four. After being released, Mr. Charles found a steady job, purchased a car, and rented an apartment.
Mr. President, you hope that former inmates find “paths to success so they can support their families and support their communities.” Mr. Charles found that path. After being released, he reconnected with his children and grandchildren, began a serious relationship, and started volunteering at a local food pantry weekly. According to the judge that granted Mr. Charles’ sentence modification, “Matthew Charles has done what we asked of him and he ought to be an example to others.”
Two years after being released Mr. Charles was ordered back to prison. Unlike the more than one-third of former federal prison inmates you discussed in your address Mr. President, Mr. Charles was not sent back to prison for failing to adjust to life outside. He was sent back because of a governmental error.
Under President Obama, the U.S. Attorney’s office (USAO) appealed Mr. Charles’ sentence reduction. The USAO argued that his sentence should not have been reduced under a technicality. Unfortunately, for Mr. Charles, the federal appeals judge ruled in favor of the USAO and directed a new judge, District Judge Aleta Trauger, to re-impose Mr. Charles’ original sentence.
Judge Trauger filed an order requesting that the USAO under your presidency reconsider its position on resentencing Mr. Charles. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledges “There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of the above charging policy is not warranted.” Unfortunately, newly appointed U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran “did not see a set of facts so unique” that would warrant allowing Mr. Charles to remain a productive member of society.
On March 28, 2018, after being what Tennessee State Senator Steve Dickerson referred to as a “model citizen” for two years, Mr. Charles was ordered back to prison to finish the last 14 years of his original sentence from the 1990’s. During the sentencing, Judge Trager called the situation “sad,” commended Mr. Charles for his “exemplary rehabilitation,” and gave him 45 days to get his affairs in order. After his sentencing, Mr. Charles said “I believe that God is still in charge of the situation. He hasn’t revealed to me what he’s doing yet…but my faith remains the same.”
Over the course of those 45 days, Mr. Charles held his head high and continued to pursue righteous endeavors. He didn’t recidivate and did not attempt to flee. He continued to volunteer at the local food pantry and spent time with his friends and family. When it came time to deal with his material possessions, he didn’t sell them to profit for himself. Instead, he donated almost everything he had so that he could help others.
On May 14, 2018, just four days before you shared your hopes for former inmates with the nation, Mr. Charles turned himself in. He was sent to a medium security facility in South Carolina, 9 hours away from his loved ones, to spend the next 14 years of his life.
Instead of allowing Mr. Charles to spend the next 14 years working, paying local, state, and federal taxes, and giving back to his community, the United States taxpayers will be paying nearly half a million dollars just to incarcerate him. That figure does not include the extra thousands of dollars’ worth of medical bills that come from incarcerating people over 50 years of age.
During your speech, Mr. President, you acknowledged that putting former inmates on public assistance is a “waste of money.” By all accounts, I believe that incarcerating Mr. Charles at this point is a waste of money. However, the focus shouldn’t be on what Mr. Charles will cost the taxpayer while incarcerated, but what value he could continue to bring to his community in lieu of incarceration. He could continue to be a strong partner for his girlfriend, another positive male role model for his grandchildren, an exemplary employee for his employer, a selfless volunteer for the local food pantry, and an upstanding, law-abiding citizen of Nashville, Tennessee, and the United States.
Mr. President, you affirmed that “America is a nation that believes in the power of redemption” during the Summit. Mr. Charles’ story is a moving one, not because of the cards he’s been dealt but because of his path to redemption. While many see prison as the end of life, Mr. Charles saw it as the beginning. The beginning of a life filled with charity, spirituality, and kindness. When Mr. Charles was asked if he still believed in redemption, he said “Some see the changes, and others don’t want to see [them]. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to change back…No, I’m going to continue to live out this new life.”
Mr. President, you believe that America is “a nation of second chances, third chances…and even fourth chances.” Having exhausted all legal options, Mr. Charles has only one chance left, and it rests with you. Mr. President, please commute Mr. Matthew Charles’ sentence and allow him to continue serving his family and community with the new life he worked so hard to build.