If he hadn’t been arrested, he might not have ever become a Christian.
Those are the words of Matthew Charles, the first inmate released from prison after President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act late last year.
During an interview with Faithwire, Charles said he turned to Jesus after an inmate left behind a Bible that he soon started reading, which eventually led the 51-year-old Nashville native to surrender his life to Christ.
Though he’s uncertain how God might have worked in his life, Charles admitted he “probably” wouldn’t have become a Christian if he hadn’t been arrested in 1995 for numerous gun violations and for selling crack cocaine in Clarksville, Tennessee — charges that eventually landed him a 35-year prison sentence.
Charles said he was heading down the wrong direction, admitting he didn’t even believe God existed before he was saved in 1996. His arrest and imprisonment set his life on an entirely different trajectory — one that led him to share the Gospel with his parents a few years later.
As a kid, he was “indifferent” to God. But in 1999, Charles said, “I was able to speak about the Christian experience with my father and to my mother, and to my knowledge, they both accepted Christ as their personal savior.”
“God has shown me overwhelmingly his love throughout the whole period,” Charles reflected. “I’m thankful to God for many, many things.”
Charles shot to national prominence in May 2018, when people like socialite Kim Kardashian started sharing his story.
This man is sentenced to 35 yrs for selling drugs. He serves over 21 yrs, is released, finds a job, new relationship, starts a new life, & now is being sent back for another 10 yrs because the original release was an error. This man has completely rehabilitated himself. So sad https://t.co/msLsMSHGxh
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) May 28, 2018
After serving 21 years of his 35-year sentence, Charles was released in 2016, when the government changed the penalties for dealing crack cocaine. In the past, convictions related to one gram of cocaine were the same as those involving 100 grams of cocaine.
A federal judge applied the legal changes to Charles’ case, shortening the former inmate’s sentence. But then the U.S. Attorney’s Office caught wind of Charles’ release and decided to appeal the judge’s decision, arguing the revised statute didn’t apply to him because he’d been arrested more than once.
On May 14, 2018, Charles was sent back to prison.
Behind bars — whether during his first 21 years or in the seven months he was incarcerated last year — Charles said it was his faith in Jesus that gave him “hope” that something would change, that he would one day walk out of prison a free man.
That’s exactly what happened Jan. 3. Thanks to the First Step Act, Charles was released from prison and his sentence was finally reduced to time served. He was one of President Trump’s guests at the State of the Union address Feb. 5.
“That experience was amazing,” Charles said of attending the annual presidential address. “I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams … that I was being invited by the president and his wife, Melania, to attend the State of the Union and sit in the first lady’s gallery.”
Above all else, Charles said, he is grateful to God for the life he’s had.
“I’d be the first to admit I was a bad guy, I was a horrible guy. My record reflected that,” he said. “But something happened to me — I became saved — and because I became saved, it changed me physically, mentally and spiritually. It allowed me to have a whole different outlook on life.”
Looking back from when he was first arrested in 1995 to now, Charles said it’s important for Americans to learn two lessons from his life, which was dramatically changed by the First Step Act: The first is that people can change. The second is that both political parties — Democrats and Republicans — “can work together.”