A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Post 3: Manaen Matthews

Manaen Matthews was convicted of tax and wire fraud, a white-collar crime. He has no history of violence, but was sentenced to 78 months of prison time along with just over half a million dollars in restitution to the United States government, for processing roughly about three and a half million dollars in tax returns.

**As a disclosure, I have not been granted access to the internet as an inmate and can not verify elements past those provided in legal filings which people have in their possession or their stories which they tell. However, I do believe the elements of this story to be accurate. **

I first met Manaen when I first arrived at Fort Dix, NJ, late last year in 2021. One of the first things that stood out to me, was that Manaen was one of the most respectful and ethical men I have ever met. Respect is a huge deal in prison, but Manaen takes it to a different level. He is helpful without asking for anything in return. I personally don’t believe in altruism, but I believe Manaen’s intentions are pretty much as close to what you can get. Bottom-line, he has an amazing heart with good intentions.

I can not speak to his character prior to prison, as I did not know him, but being around people in prison, you get intimately familiar with people quite rapidly. You get to see how they ‘move’. I like to believe that most people can tell intentions by paying attention to body language and interactions. I am a people-watcher by nature and I like to obverse people from a distance to really figure out if I want to make them a part of my own life. I believe that who you choose to interact with, greatly affects who you are as a person, as that person will ultimately have an influence upon your life and how you choose to act around others.

Manaen grew up in a Christian home as a child, but he didn’t truly take his faith seriously until he got into trouble. I can honestly say, and I don’t easily give out praise (one of my personal flaws I am working to improve upon), that Manaen lives out the principles that the bible teaches. He is the personification of what the bible teaches. And having observed individuals around where I have been within the criminal justice system, I can say that I believe he truly wants to do things that affect people positively. He has likely had these positive traits for most of his adult life.

The crime that he was charged with was helping Native Americans at the Wounded Knee Pine Ridge Reservation with tax credits. He ran a tax consulting agency, his own company, which would help the people of the Lakota tribe (some of the poorest people in the entire country) get entitlements which they technically should not have received, due to the fact that a lot of these poor people did not have ‘official employment’. Nowadays, these stimulus and tax credits apply as long as you file a tax return, but previously, according to the law, you had to meet certain technical elements to receive the credit. In this case, many were not employed with W-2 income. He filed these tax returns on behalf of these people anyways.

Now, I don’t want to advocate what he did, nor do I believe he himself wishes to communicate that he felt what he did was right. He admits clearly he knew he broke the law and was doing something that was not right at the time. What I do want to express, is that Manaen admitted those faults when he was first caught by the IRS and attempted to own up.

Manaen did describe himself to me as a modern day Robin Hood. He was even described by members of the Lakota tribe by a phase translated as “a man who helps many”. Let me explain the state these individuals of this tribe are in. The women would rather be pregnant than not, in order to avoid having to try to afford tampons or other women’s hygiene products. These people would break down furniture just to burn in order to stay warm during winter months. They have been displaced multiple times because of pipelines which have been built on their lands. And they have one of the nation’s highest drug addiction problems in the country.

I believe Manaen was attempting to find a living, while also helping people. He did not see other opportunities present which would allow him to live a lifestyle which he wanted to live. This is a core problem in the United States, in my opinion. Too many young people can’t see a life where they can work hard and make an earning which would support their life and dreams. To do this, many believe they have to resort to a life in crime or semi-criminal behavior. Today, while I was interviewing Manaen for this blog post, he stated he does not yet know what he will do when he gets out of prison. This is a MAJOR problem in the criminal justice system, a shortcoming that allows for so much recidivism to occur. This system rarely promotes skill building or opportunities to better yourself in a formal setting. You are left with others who are convicted of crimes, and told to rehabilitate yourself prior to getting out.

The system, especially during COVID-19, has left most inmates without any programs to better themselves. And they programs which are offered, aren’t the helpful types. The last drug education course I was required to take, expressed that drugs really were not that harmful and revealed the illicit ways the government regulated these substances with tax stamps and workarounds for our legal system and constitution. While helpful in revealing some of the injustice of the criminal justice system, who does this knowledge really help? How is this applicable to forming better habits and building real skills for when these inmates get out? The answer, the system has failed so many individuals contained within these walls and is responsible for rehabilitation. The government should be ashamed, having spent so much on the criminal justice system, with so little to be shown. The stats alone should justify a review of where spending is actually going.

I digress on the issues pointed out above, however my point stands. The system has failed these individuals. Inmates like Manaen are left without a direction to head when they leave this establishment and return to the real world. While he has an amazing heart, and honestly wishes to help people who truly need it, he has seen no opportunities or gained any insight into how he might better himself past these altruistic personality traits. He must still provide for himself and his family. He must make a living and has hopes and dreams for himself. How have these years in prison helped him to lead a better life, in becoming a responsible and contributing member of society? Where do you think he will turn, when there are no opportunities that he sees, when he is finally released? Being a good person and earning a living are two different elements, ones that should align. Prison and the justice system should show how he can take his existing skills and earn a living still helping people, just in a legal way, one that doesn’t hurt the community, but makes it better and stronger. He has the heart, and I believe he even has the skills – we as society need to help him and others see where they fit into society and where they can earn a good living. College doesn’t teach these skills, and so what if he doesn’t have a formal education? Many of the individuals I have met inside the Federal system are incredibly smart, and that is coming from a lvy League graduate. We have failed Manaen. We have failed others like him. I want to be part of the solution. That is why I am teaching entrepreneurship at the institution where I am incarcerated. But why does it take an inmate to make something like this happen – when billions of dollars are allocated to the BOP’s budget every year? Why must it take an inmate to teach courses for free? What if other facilities don’t have inmates experienced in business consulting like me who are qualified to teach courses on business?

I’m not here to just point fingers, obviously, I have already started to change things within my own facility. I am here to show the community at large where problems exist, and discuss ways which can resolve some of these issues. We need to offer programming which will really begin to teach inmates and individuals within the criminal justice system skills so that they can be lawfully employed. This is also an uphill battle for them now, as they now possess a criminal record. So this battle is even harder once they get out. We need to develop programs that will truly help those inside, and better educate the youth and begin to work on developing opportunities where people can truly earn a livable wage. I would love to hear others’ solutions, where I can voice them further to our following. Together, we can make a difference for people before they are even introduced to the US criminal justice system. Lets avoid putting more people behind bars, and move to transforming their lives, so they can impact the community in a positive way before crime control measures are even required.

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