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He Rebuilt His Life, Only To Be Sent Back To Prison

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Matthew Charles was a model inmate. He continued to rebuild his life when he earned early release from a federal lockup two years ago. Congressional changes to drug sentencing guidelines reduced his sentence, but prosecutors successfully argued that his criminal history should have disqualified him from early release. Mr. Charles is now back in prison. His case has gained national attention with calls this week for the White House to intervene. Julieta Martinelli of member station WPLN has been following his story for the last six months and has this report.

JULIETA MARTINELLI, BYLINE: It's 4 o'clock on a Saturday, and over a dozen people huddle quietly in a backyard in Nashville. Through the slats of a tall wooden gate, they see Matthew Charles approaching.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Surprise!

MATTHEW CHARLES: All right.

MARTINELLI: Charles is a man of few words, but his eyes are filled with tears. There's chips and salsa on the tables and cold beers in a cooler. It looks like a party, but there's nothing to celebrate. Charles is going back to prison where he'll serve at least another decade to finish his 35-year term for selling crack in the '90s.

RICHARD WOLFE: He's built this life. And now you're going to come and just snatch it.

MARTINELLI: That's Richard Wolfe. He met Charles at a halfway house in 2016 when he was released from federal prison. Now they volunteer together. But the Charles Wolfe knows now is very different from the brash 29 year old sentenced in 1996. Prosecutors pointed to his record at trial. He previously served time in a state prison for charges including kidnapping and robbery. They labeled Charles a career offender, a tag that automatically triggered a harsher sentence. Mandatory minimums were 30 years to life.

CHARLES: I got sentenced 35 years. I was heartbroken. I didn't understand it.

MARTINELLI: But it made him re-evaluate his life. He began reading the Bible. One night, he had what he says he can only describe as a spiritual awakening. He took Bible correspondence courses and started going to chapel.

CHARLES: I didn't think God existed. I thought he was actually a crutch, you know, that people use because they were either sick or poor. Through the course of my life, I'd never seen his hand in anything. So once the things started happening with me, I knew it was real.

MARTINELLI: Charles began mentoring new prisoners. He enrolled in college classes and started working as a law clerk. Then in 2010, a move by Congress changed his life. The Fair Sentencing Act attempted to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine. Critics of the harsher crack penalties said they unfairly targeted communities of color. It also meant people like Charles could ask to have their sentences reduced.

KEVIN SHARP: The way I read it I thought that he was eligible. No doubt it was a close call. But I though what you couldn't discount was what had happened while he was in prison. He had really reformed.

MARTINELLI: That's former judge Kevin Sharp who granted Charles his freedom. But the U.S. attorney's office appealed. They said the amended laws did not apply to Charles because - remember - he was labeled a career offender. The U.S. attorney has declined to comment on the case. For almost two years, as the appeal made its way through the courts, Charles built his new life. He got a good job, reconnected with his family and started a serious relationship. He joined a church and began volunteering at a food pantry.

CHARLES: I was making minimum wage money. And I was doing it the right way. And it felt good. It felt like an achievement. It was an achievement.

MARTINELLI: Since his return to prison two weeks ago, Charles's case has captured national attention through social media. Celebrities and politicians are now rallying for his release. Kevin Ring is the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

KEVIN RING: I've never seen one take off as quickly as this one did and be embraced by people on the right and left. This has transcended politics.

MARTINELLI: One of the people who heard about the case was Shon Hopwood. He's a former jailhouse lawyer and now Georgetown law professor. On Thursday, Hopwood announced that he would represent Charles's clemency petition pro bono. For NPR News, I'm Julieta Martinelli in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julieta Martinelli
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