For over seven months while Matthew Charles was incarcerated at Grayson County Detention Center, Naomi Tharpe was his support system.
The night of his release is no different. After driving from Nashville, Tharpe carries a bag overflowing with items as she arrives at the prison.
“Some more clothes, some jogging pants, a shirt and jacket, “ she says as she thumbs through the items.
When Charles turned himself in to U.S. Marshals last May, he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. On this night, it’s cold and windy in Leitchfield, Ky.
A voice through an intercom instructs Tharpe to walk through the metal door alone. She's gone for a few minutes. When the door opens again, Charles is there too.
“Hey, hey, hey, how y’all doing?” says Charles with a laugh.
And just like that — Matthew Charles is a free man. Again.
First Step Act Changes Sentence
Matthew Charles was never much of an activist. But after getting out of prison in 2016, being ordered back two years later and then getting unexpectedly freed last week, the Nashville man wants to help other offenders serving long drug sentences find transformation and freedom.
Charles’ sentence was originally reduced in 2016, after he served 21 years of a 35 year term for selling crack cocaine.
He was free for almost two years. During that time, he got a good job, began volunteering at a food pantry every weekend, made friends and reconnected with his family.
But the government appealed his release. They said he should have never gotten out because he had prior convictions on his record that made him ineligible. Despite the progress he’d made in prison over two decades, the justice system still considered him a “career offender.”
Charles was forced to return to prison in 2018, a move that criminal justice advocates say is almost unheard of in the U.S. It caused an uproar in his community — eventually becoming national news and garnering Charles the support of politicians, celebrities and media outlets which highlighted his religious conversion behind bars and pointed to his rehabilitation.
Now, Charles is free again as a result of the First Step Act, a new criminal justice reform law that President Trump signed into law last month, making changes to crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive for all offenders — including Charles.
The bill also allows people in prison to earn more time off their sentence for good behavior and sets aside funding for more programs in federal prison.
Not only is Charles one of the first beneficiaries, says his lawyer Shon Hopwood, he is part of the reason it passed.
“Matthew’s story is one we flagged for members of congress,” says Hopwood, who was a national advocate for the bill. “We used [his] story to sell lawmakers on why the First Step Act was so important, and why some of these sentencing provisions lead to unjust sentences and unjust outcomes.”
That’s because Charles was convicted before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine, but did not apply those changes to all previous cases, including those classified as “career offenders.” The First Step Act remedied that.
Which means that Charles’ short return to prison, in the long run, could potentially end up helping to free thousands of others serving similar sentences.
'It Allows Them To Have Hope'
Matthew Charles says he always believed there was a purpose to his reincarceration, but didn’t know what — until now.
“I could never understand why this was actually happening,” says Charles. “But I kind of see the picture — not the clear picture, but I see now that not only was it able to benefit and help me, but it is also able to help others in similar situations.”
Charles also hopes his case inspires others in prison to seek rehabilitation, knowing that positive change can also have a legal reward. Until now, he says there have been few incentives at the federal level to join programs aimed at reducing recidivism and preparing prisoners for the challenges that come after prison, especially if they’re serving long sentences.
“It allows them to have hope,” says Charles. “It allows them to keep their mind clear. Now they can say, ‘I’m still going to have to do this sentence. But when I am released from this sentence depends upon how I reprogram. How I take advantage of the situations allowed before me.’”
Now free from fears of returning to prison, Charles wants to help those that make it out, like him, after decades behind bars. The plan is pretty simple:
“Utilize whatever opportunity lies before me to be able to help more people because I received a tremendous amount of help,” says Charles. “I also wouldn't mind doing some small business ventures to be able to benefit those that are being released. They were my family when I was incarcerated. I would wrong them, to not remember them.”
Starting over isn’t easy, Charles says. But it makes a world of difference when someone is rooting for you.