When a Nashville man named Matthew Charles was released from prison early in 2016 after a sentence reduction, he’d spent almost half his life behind bars. But in a rare move, a federal court ruled his term was reduced in error and ordered him back behind bars to finish his sentence.
It’s 4 o’clock on a Saturday in late April, and over a dozen people have gathered for a surprise party in honor of Matthew Charles at his girlfriend Naomi Tharpe’s home.
Charles is a little late, which is good, because guests are still making their way in through a side door when a friend who’s been entertaining him sends Tharpe a text announcing their arrival.
The guests — an assorted bunch including members of his church congregation, coworkers, volunteers from a local food pantry and even a former cellmate — are bursting with laughter. Tharpe has just passed out tiny, colorful water guns so they can spray Charles.
A hush passes over the crowd as they spot him approaching through the narrow slats of the tall wooden gate.
As the door swings open, Charles is greeted by a loud “surprise!”
Some shoot the water guns, at him, then at each other. Everyone’s whooping and clapping.
Charles stands quietly for a moment. Finally, he says, “alright.”
Charles is a man of few words. But his eyes are filled with tears.
People clap and hug him. Eventually he retreats back inside the house. One by one, his guests find him in the kitchen — they embrace him and share some laughs until the next person saunters over. Everyone wants a moment with Charles.
Outside, there are chips and salsa on the tables and cold beers in a cooler. Tharpe’s son, Isaac, is grilling ribs and burgers. His wife, Christina, has laid out a buffet of side dishes and colorful toppings.
It looks like a party — but Charles isn’t leaving for a big new job, or trying his luck in a new city.
He’s going to prison. To finish out a 35-year term for selling crack to an informant in the ’90s.
Charles had already served 21 years before his sentence was cut short as a result of crack guideline changes passed by the Obama administration. But the U.S. Attorney’s office appealed his release on the grounds that Charles was legally considered a “career offender” due to a prior stint in state prison. They said the retroactive change in the law did not apply to him — and a Court of Appeals agreed.
“He’s rebuilt his life and now they’re coming to snatch it,” says Richard Wolfe, who met Charles at a halfway house in 2016. They’ve volunteered together almost every Saturday since, long after fulfilling their community service requirements.
Wolfe is talking to John Hairston, an old friend of Charles’ who flew in from Houston. They’ve seen each other twice in over two decades — but for years, they wrote each other letters.
“The whole thing pisses me off to be honest,” he says, partly to Wolf and partly to the group of guests seated at another table across the lawn, who’re listening intently and shaking their heads. “But it underscores how big a need there is for some reform in the justice system. I don’t care what they say.”
Since his release in 2016, Charles has held a steady job. He volunteers every Saturday, has reconnected with his family, and started a serious relationship. But really, his rehabilitation started years prior.
In prison, he took college classes and correspondence courses, he taught a GED program and became a law clerk. With his training, he helped other incarcerated men understand the judicial system long after their public defenders moved on to the next case.
Charles kept the secrets of those who were illiterate so they wouldn’t face ridicule or harassment — he read them letters from the court and drafted filings for them in the library. He organized bible studies and counseled newcomers. Two decades in federal insitututions — from maximum to low security — without a single disciplinary infraction.
Those that know Charles say they can’t understand why the justice system won’t recognize his rehabilitation. But the federal Bureau of Prisons did away with parole and most “good behavior” incentives years ago — even the best behaved must serve out the majority of their term.
Charles says the whole situation feels surreal.
“I’m so tired,” he says, after his hearing is postponed for the second time. “I am beyond tired. I always say to myself and others, ‘When is enough going to be enough?’”
Last time Charles faced time in prison, he was a drug dealer in his 20s. At his sentencing in December 1996, a federal judge called Charles “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets.”
Charles doesn’t dispute that. Until then, his entire life was embroiled in chaos.
Charles says his father was violent, especially with the boys, on a regular basis. When he turned 18, Charles joined the Army, hoping to escape the dysfunction and poverty inside his family’s cramped public housing apartment.
When his service ended, Charles found himself back at square one. He grew angrier. When he was arrested, he says no one was sad to see him go. Not even him.
“I had closed up and gone into a shell,” he says. “I told you one time that I felt like I was hard as a brick building, as hard as a rock. And I had to be — because feelings didn’t matter there. And if you had feelings, you allowed yourself to be hurt even more.”
Now in his 50s, Charles has the support of friends and his community — and even the judge who ordered him back to prison.
Everything is different. And yet, he says, nothing’s changed.
On March 28, in a courtroom filled with more than two dozen of Charles’ friends, coworkers and loved ones, Judge Aleta Trauger called Charles’ case “sad” and commended his “exemplary rehabilitation.”
But, she added that “her hands were tied” and reimposed his original sentence. She gave him 45 days to get his affairs in order.
“It was like a 180 from what I had thought would happen. I’m just disappointed, again,” he says outside the courtroom.
“But I believe that God is still in charge of the situation. He hasn’t revealed to me what he’s doing yet,” he says with a chuckle, “but my faith remains the same.”
Charles is no stranger to starting over. When he walked out of prison two years ago he had nothing. Even his photo albums were seized by law enforcement when he was arrested in 1995.
In his file, there are countless requests made with the court asking for the photos to be returned — he never inquires about money or vehicles. Eventually, the government writes him a letter saying they lost the photos.
But, over the past two years, Charles built a new life — he bought clothing, furniture, a cell phone, a car. He rented a room in East Nashville. There are frames with new pictures and smiling faces on the nightstand next to his bed.
Over the next few weeks, Charles donates everything he can. He returns his SUV to the dealer and gives the house key back to his landlord.
Then, a few days after the surprise party, he sends me a selfie from North Carolina. He’s visiting his siblings — they have the same big toothy smiles and eyes that crinkle at the corners.
As for his relationship with Tharpe, that’s harder to wrap up neatly.
“We discussed being eight to 10 years older and what our health situation may or may not be,” says Charles.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” responds Tharpe. “It’s a conversation you don’t want to talk about because you don’t really know what you’re talking about. So how do you even handle that?”
Tharpe never thought she’d date a man in prison. She says she doesn’t know how that would work or if she’d be able to be away from him for a decade. It’s a lot to process. But later, alone, she tells me she plans to go see Charles every weekend. The judge has recommended he be housed at a facility in Kentucky, four hours away. It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but she’s already planning her visits.
On another occasion, Charles says being alone is hard but he imagines so is being with someone. He saw a lot of heartbreak in prison caused by partners who gave up or couldn’t handle the loneliness. He doesn’t blame them.
But he’s got other concerns weighing on his mind. Charles will be in his early 60s upon release. He fears his health will deteriorate in prison and he won’t be able to find work as easily as he did this time.
That’s a valid concern — older inmates are more likely to develop serious health issues behind bars. Incarcerating people over 50 costs taxpayers thousands more a year in medical bills.
But there’s nothing Charles can do about that. On his final day of freedom, we meet outside the Marshal’s office.
“My reality today was I woke up this morning with Naomi,” he says. “We went to Shoney’s to eat breakfast. We were able to move according to our own accord. Whereas tomorrow, they’ll tell me when I can eat breakfast, when I can move, when I can shower or go to the rec yard. They’ll control my life.”
Charles makes a final phone call to his lawyer.
“Hey, I was just calling to let you know I’m here at the Marshal’s Office, turning myself in,” Charles says over the speakerphone.
“Good luck to you Mr. Charles. Please let us know if you need anything,” responds federal public defender Mariah Wooten.
Soon, a deputy shows up. It’s time to go.
He asks Charles for his medication and whether he’s brought money for commissary. Charles has been through this before. He knows it might be a while until he’s in the system, so he’s brought enough money to take care of his initial needs upon arrival. He’ll need shower shoes and stamps, he’ll need to make phone calls and buy snacks.
But the deputy makes him give his money back to Tharpe.
“Our rule is only $50,” he says apologetically. Charles catches my eye.
But he’s still in good spirits. He hugs his partner of two years, kisses and then holds her tight. As a deputy leads him away, she starts to tear up.
“It’s going to be alright. Don’t do that.”
For the next decade, the federal Bureau of Prisons will dictate Charles’ every move.
In fact, just a few days prior, Charles found out he’ll be locked up at a medium security facility in South Carolina instead of Kentucky. It’s nine hours away from home.
As the door shuts behind him, I think back to a conversation we had while sitting on a park bench a few days after his sentencing.
It was getting dark and I had already started packing up my equipment. Suddenly, I asked him if he still believed in redemption.
He mulled over his answer before replying.
“Here’s a man who’s changed, right? Some see the changes and others don’t want to see [them]. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to change back. I didn’t do it for the U.S. Attorney’s office to say ‘Charles has been a good boy, let’s give him a break.’ No, I’m going to continue to live out this new life.”
We sit quietly and look at the sunset for a moment, before he adds:
“It is a great life.”