The 60-year-old Cleveland resident said he was sentenced to life in prison at a trial in Knoxville three decades ago for committing nonviolent crimes over a period of years. In his last offense, committed Dec. 13, 1979, Chandler was found guilty of burglary in the third degree.
The jury set his punishment at a minimum of six and a maximum of 10 years incarceration. However, this conviction, unbeknown to Chandler, triggered the application of Tennessee’s Habitual Criminals Act and introduced a separate proceeding in 1980 to determine whether Chandler was guilty of being a habitual criminal under Tennessee law.
Before he fully realized what was happening, Chandler was convicted to life in prison and eligible for parole upon serving not less than 30 years of his sentence.
Chandler admits, “I was in prison before I realized I had a life sentence. It was months later before it actually dawned on me. At that particular time I had turned my life over to Christ. I had no worries.”
The local cosmetologist and barber said he fully realized he was serving a life sentence while cutting someone’s hair in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, where her served some of his time.
“It suddenly hit me,” said Chandler. “I said to myself, ‘Man, you’re never getting out of here!’ It was shocking because I did not realize I was not ever, ever, ever getting out of prison. I kept saying, ‘I hadn’t killed anyone. Why am I serving a life sentence?’”
That was the question Chandler kept asking himself and others. All the while he said he had given his life to God and was preaching to other inmates and encouraging them to turn their lives around.
At the same time, Chandler’s case was being appealed on the basis that he felt Tennessee’s Habitual Criminals Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel.
Although he lost on those appeals, Chandler was eligible to receive up to 16 days of good-time credits toward his sentence for each month served, reducing the amount of time he had to serve before becoming eligible for parole.
As each year passed Chandler stayed busy reaching out to fellow inmates and preaching to those who would listen. Before he knew it, the converted criminal was being released on parole in 1993.
Having been incarcerated for more than 13 years, Chandler had to go to a work release center to get acclimated back into society, which he admits was “very hard.” Soon he was a free man with a fresh start in life but confessed he was more terrified than relieved.
“I was scared to death!” Chandler admits. “I didn’t know what to do. Imagine being locked up for 14 years — someone was telling you what to do, how to do it and when to do it — then you’re put back out there in society and they say ‘Go!’ It was strange. I said, ‘Lord what am I supposed to do?’”
The day of his release, Chandler married his wife, Julia, in Knoxville where NFL legend Reggie White, was in attendance, according to Chandler.
“Reggie was a good friend of mine. I was with Reggie just before he passed away. We went to Atlanta and had a good time. I use to work out with him. I was pretty big in size back then,” said Chandler. “At that time I could bench press 550 pounds. I could outbench Reggie, but I couldn’t outsquat him.”
According to Chandler, it was White who put him in his first business — a salon in Knoxville.
“From that moment on my journey has been OK. I’ve been free ever since,” said Chandler, who still meets monthly with a parole officer.
But the owner of Chandler’s House of Style in Cleveland said his freedom had transcended the prison bars of man and released him from a life of recidivism.
“I had been running from God. I was brought up in the church,” said Chandler. “My father’s daddy was a preacher, my father’s brother was a preacher, his kids are preachers. But I kept running through a revolving door.
“I had to repent which also means to turn away from sin and not keep doing it again. God showed me how to stop running. Today I’m a minister who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what I do.”
Going back into prisons with a message of hope and salvation, after living among inmates for years, has been described as a “blessing” by Chandler, a local preacher at Price Memorial AME Zion church in Cleveland.
Chandler said he would like to see more preachers take the gospel to prisoners who need to be ministered to as much as people on the outside.
“In prisons you have Satan running free,” said Chandler. “I preached last weekend and my message was, ‘Why aren’t more churches in there? Why aren’t we carrying the word about Jesus into more prisons? These inmates are not hopeless. They just made a mistake.
“Why aren’t more churches going into departments of corrections — into the jails, into the nursing homes, into the hospitals telling people about Jesus Christ — that’s our job!
Jesus said ‘I was sick and you came unto me. I was in prison and you came unto me. I needed food to eat and you came unto me.’ We’re not doing that. Why aren’t we doing what we’re supposed to be doing?”
Chandler said he visits the Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility in Wartburg once a month and any other facility that will allow him to enter and preach.
“A lot of times people will go into prisons saying, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ But they don’t really know what those prisoners are going through,” said Chandler. “I really know what they’re going through. That’s why my ministry is so effective. Going to jail and going to prison are two different things.”
Chandler said through it all he learned “it’s never too late to find the way back to God through Jesus Christ, and people can learn a new way of living through reading the Bible and following Jesus.”
“I’m an ex-con who loves Jesus Christ,” said Chandler, who has six daughters, 18 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
On Dec. 13, Chandler and members of Price Memorial AME Zion church where he attends will return to Martin County Regional Correctional Facility to feed 150 inmates. Other churches will also serve food there.
“I spent 12 calendar years at that facility,” said Chandler. “So I look forward to going back there. I Thank God to be a volunteer at the same facility I did my time in. How great is that?”