Queens, NY - A Nashville man who is believed to be the first person released under President Donald Trump’s First Step Act visited Cambria Heights this week to express his gratitude to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who spoke publicly decades ago about the importance of using prison as a vehicle for rehabilitation, not punishment.
A career offender with multiple convictions on various charges, Matthew Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1996 after being found guilty of selling crack cocaine and illegal possession of a firearm, reported NBC News .
During his time in prison, Charles devoted himself to bible study, took college classes and mentored other prisoners, earning early release in 2016. But two years later, Charles was ordered to serve out the remaining nine years of his sentence after prosecutors won an appeal, arguing that he was ineligible for early release because of his status as a repeat offender.
Charles was released for a second time in January 2019 just weeks after Trump signed the First Step Act, which included a provision that retroactively reduced mandatory minimum sentences on crack convictions, and he was publicly welcomed home by the president during his February 5th State of the Union address.
Charles has become an outspoken advocate for prison reform since his release and was in New York this week for a two day conference on prison alternatives hosted by Columbia University Law School and The Aleph Institute, reported Chabad.org.
A video of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, speaking in Yiddish in 1976 about the importance of maintaining inmates’ godliness and humanity during their incarceration and using the jail time to prepare for new lives based on honesty and peace struck a chord with Charles.
The 52 year old traveled to Montefiore Cemetery on June 18th to pay his respects to the Lubavitcher Rebbe along with the Tzedek Institute’s Moshe Margareten, who lobbied for the justice reform that ultimately evolved into the First Step Act.
Reflecting on the video he had seen at the conference, Charles said that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, delivered more than 40 years ago, remained as timely as ever.
“I heard the message and [the Rebbe’s] efforts at criminal justice reform and everything he had done and I wanted to come out and be thankful and say thank you,” said Charles.