Two Tennesseans released from prison in the past year because of steps taken by the Trump administration will be guests of the president for tonight’s State of the Union address.
Matthew Charles was the first person released from prison under the criminal justice reform law known as the First Step Act, which President Donald Trump signed in December. Advocates for reform used Charles’ case to highlight the repercussions of long, mandatory sentences, as they encouraged lawmakers to pass the bill.
Among other things, the First Step Act made drug-sentencing changes passed in 2010 retroactive, so people like Charles could ask to have their sentences reevaluated.
Charles says the invitation from the president feels surreal.
“When I was in prison, I was just hoping that I would be able to be released and find a job paying above minimum wage — let alone now that I have been released, be invited by the president to the State of the Union,” he tells WPLN.
In Washington, he will meet Alice Marie Johnson for the first time. Johnson’s life sentence was commuted by Trump last summer after serving more than two decades for nonviolent drug offenses in Memphis.
Trump’s decision to allow Johnson to be released followed urging from national criminal justice reform groups, as well as reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who traveled to the White House to advocate on her behalf.
Charles was first profiled by WPLN in December 2017, and his story was shared by celebrities on social media and picked up by conservative outlets like Fox News. A release from the White House focuses on Charles’ religious conversion while in prison, his education behind bars and his role as a mentor to other incarcerated men.
Charles says he will join President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on Tuesday afternoon for a private meeting, followed by a tour of the White House. In the evening, he will join the president at the Capitol for the State of the Union address.
This is his second trip to the Capitol in two weeks: He previously visited lawmakers who supported the First Step Act and encouraged them to pass further reforms.
“After it’s said and done, I hope everyone will feel belief or hope that more criminal justice reform will be made,” he says.