OPENING ACTIVITY: Get Out of Jail and Be Free
Before class, make copies of a “Get Out of Jail, Free” card from a Monopoly game. If you don’t have the game, you can find the image and copy it from many sites online. As class begins, give each student a copy, then ask how it felt to be “free” from something that once “jailed” them. For example, they may have been able to burn the mortgage paper on their house, finally pay off a car loan or other debt, or leave a difficult situation behind them.
This week’s story is about a man who was in prison for legitimate reasons—because he broke the law—and his subsequent release following not one but two “get out of jail” undertakings.
OPENING STORY: [Read the story aloud or make copies and pass them around.]
RELEASED FROM PRISON—TWICE!
Matthew Charles was heartbroken when he was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine. Although he knew he deserved to be in prison and that serving 10 years for his crimes was probably too little, he thought he might get 20 years—not 35.
What contributed to Charles’ long sentence was his troubled past. The court considered him a repeat offender. Charles says that his home life was chaotic. His father was physically abusive to his mother and though Charles tried to not be like his father, he says that he “ended up being a worse version of him … if not a carbon copy.” To escape, Charles joined the army. However, he struggled with authority and “grew angrier, eager to rebel.” After being honorably discharged, Charles returned home and starting getting involved in a number of criminal activities. He was eventually convicted of kidnapping and assault, and after his parole he began selling crack. One of his clients, a soldier from a nearby base who was caught in possession of crack, turned him in.
Charles experienced what he calls a “spiritual awakening” while awaiting trial. An inmate befriended him and gave him a Bible. Charles began reading it alone in his cell and reluctantly spoke to God, saying, “Well, if You’re real, You’re going to have to kind of prove it because I haven’t experienced You in no part of my life.” Charles said that he then “just started weeping and crying and it felt good. It just cracked the shell.”
This “awakening” contributed to Charles desire to rebuild himself. In the two decades he spent in prison, he completed more than 30 Bible correspondence courses, taught GED classes, worked on a college degree, and became a law clerk. And he received no negative marks on his discipline record during the entire time.
Although Charles was not eligible for early release due to changes in federal laws that abolished paroles, he did qualify for a reduced minimum sentence under an act initiated in 2010 by the Obama Administration. In 2016, a judge reduced Charles’s sentence to time served, and Charles was “free to build the life he envisioned” while behind bars. In the two years that followed, Charles got a job, rented an apartment, bought a car, volunteered in charities on weekends, and became involved in a serious relationship. But while this was going on, the government appealed his release, claiming that his status as a repeat offender in 1996 disqualified him for the reduced sentence. A federal court agreed, and in May of 2018, Charles returned to prison to complete his original sentence.
Shortly after that, many began advocating for Charles’s clemency. More than 50,000 people signed an online petition requesting his release. Politicians and celebrities joined in the chorus of voices saying that his recent incarceration was unjustified. But it was the “First Step Act,” signed into law by President Trump late last year, that eventually saved Charles. His attorney successfully argued that if Charles had been convicted under this act, he would have been subject to less severe penalties. A federal judge agreed, and in early January, Charles was released from prison a second—and hopefully final—time.
In an interview following his second release from prison, Charles said, “I still had a dark cloud hanging over my head due to the fact that I know that the government had appealed my sentence. But today, that dark cloud has evaporated.”
Now ask your class to form small groups to discuss their answers to these questions.
- Do some of your past sins seem to bind or haunt you? If you feel you can share about it, do so.
- What has helped you to break some of the chains of sin that bind or haunt you?
- How can knowing that you are no longer condemned for your sins be a source of encouragement and empowerment for you?