Former Gary boxer Charles "Duke" Tanner's fight for freedom has taken a lyrical twist.
The 32-year-old, serving life in federal prison for conspiring to distribute cocaine, unwillingly traded the bright lights of a boxing ring for the harsh lighting of a cell block more than eight years ago.
During those years, Tanner's hope for release has never dimmed — even after his appeal was rejected by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
He and Gary-based rapper Courtney "Tex da Message" Matthews recently collaborated on an album titled "Live from Behind Bars" to chronicle Tanner's struggle for freedom.
Matthews, 30, rapped while Tanner spoke on the recordings.
The duo said prison isn't the only barrier to freedom.
Matthews said he and Tanner were a natural fit for a musical collaboration.
Both men grew up in Gary and witnessed firsthand the limitations that could come from a low-income, urban upbringing. Some residents are trapped in poor neighborhoods by dead-end jobs, lack of education or abusive relationships but don't realize it, Tanner said.
Tanner's escape was boxing. He started at a young age and was noticed by several benefactors, who asked how they could help him. Tanner asked them to pay his tuition so he could attend Andrean High School in Merrillville.
In 1998, Tanner became the first male in his family to graduate from high school.
"People who are damaged don't ask for things like that," Tanner's longtime friend Jerome Matthews said. "They ask for cars. They don't ask for opportunity to change their circumstance."
Jerome Matthews, who is Courtney Matthews' cousin, said they were exposed to drugs, gangs and people getting murdered while living in Gary. Tanner said he saw his friends smoke marijuana and try other things but believed boxing gave him the discipline to abstain.
"With me, I’ve never been one to fold for peer pressure," Tanner said. "I saw a lot, but I chose to try to do what’s right and follow my career."
But on at least one occasion, Tanner's control slipped.
He was arrested Sept. 1, 2004, after federal agents recorded him setting up and participating in a cocaine deal, federal court records show.
At the time of Tanner's arrest, he had a 19-0 professional boxing record and was poised for a title fight.
He also was engaged to marry his high school sweetheart, Jacquis Coutee, with whom he had a son. The two met when they were 12 years old.
But federal prosecutors said Tanner and two brothers also were ruthless leaders of a Gary-based gang called the Renegades. They accused Tanner of orchestrating a drug ring that moved at least 150 kilograms of cocaine, federal court records state.
Tanner acknowledged making mistakes in the past but insisted he was not the Renegades' leader.
A federal court jury disagreed and, in 2006, convicted him of conspiring in a drug ring. After years of delays, U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano sentenced Tanner to two terms of life in prison in 2009.
Family and friends were shocked Tanner would be sentenced to such a significant prison term when it was his first time in trouble, and a nonviolent offense.
Meanwhile, Courtney Matthews was serving his own sentence — outside the walls of a prison. He said he went away to college to leave Gary but still felt incomplete.
Matthews said he was doing everything he was "supposed to" be doing, but he felt like a robot or an actor playing a role.
"I didn't feel like I was maximizing my potential," Matthews said.
Despite the differences in their circumstances, Tanner and Matthews shared one thing — the continued desire for freedom.
Tanner and Matthews said they used their experiences as fuel for the album and hope people understand there is more than one way to be behind bars.
"If you don't know you locked up how ... can you ever get your freedom?" Matthews rapped on "Freedom," one of the songs from their album. "I know (people) who ain't ever even left their 'hood. Now tell me that ain't locked up? ... You just ain't cell block."
Tanner is "cell block," at least for the foreseeable future.
His first appeal of his conviction and sentence was rejected by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010, federal court records show.
"Charles Tanner abandoned a promising career in boxing to become a major player in a conspiracy to distribute large amounts of cocaine," the judges wrote in their opinion. "Like many drug dealers, Tanner was caught when his co-conspirators turned on him in an attempt to reduce their own prison time."
Last October, Tanner filed another attempt to vacate his conviction and sentence, court records show. Tanner claimed the attorney who represented him at trial didn't tell Tanner the cocaine deal had been recorded and failed to advise him of the benefits of entering into a plea agreement.
Judge Lozano has not yet ruled on the motion, but Tanner said he hopes his latest attempt to overturn his conviction will be successful.
In the meantime, he agreed to share his story on Courtney Matthews' album. Tanner said he hopes someone hears it and makes a change.
"If you can't really take some of the worst things that ever happened in your life and do something constructive with them, to me, you're dishonoring the experience that you went through," Tanner said. "My situation is the worst of the worst, because I'm sitting in prison with a life sentence. But if I can stand to be positive with that, look at the world at the outside."
Courtney Matthews said he didn't realize something was missing in his life until he won a rap battle during college. He dropped out of school and became a licensed barber.
"It was the most freeing legal employment I could think of at the time," Matthews said. "It was one of the best decisions I ever made."
Matthews was named 2011 rookie of the year in the Indy Urban Music Awards. His collaboration with Tanner was his sixth album, and he plans to continue pursuing music. Matthews also went back to school to become a barber school instructor.
"You can free yourself," he said. "You have every option, every right to do better, to do more. Apply that to day-to-day living."
'I still got it'
Tanner's day-to-day living is regimented.
He said he wakes up at 4:45 a.m., reads the Bible and prays. Tanner said he works from 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, then checks emails, exercises and occasionally watches TV.
Tanner's musical collaboration with Matthews was accomplished through a series of recorded phone calls.
On at least one track, Matthews used the Federal Bureau of Prisons' recorded disclaimer that precedes inmates' telephone conversations. The disclaimer lets the person receiving the call know it is from a federal prison. It later tells callers how many minutes they have left to speak.
That voice also serves as a persistent reminder of the limits on Tanner's interactions with friends and family.
Jacquis Coutee, the mother of Tanner's son, said Tanner does the best he can from behind bars. The two broke up after Coutee moved to Atlanta to pursue a career opportunity after Tanner's arrest. She said Tanner would serve the community better if he were free.
"I know if he was out and was making money, there’s nothing I couldn’t want or need that he wouldn’t give me, let alone my son," Coutee said. "That just speaks to who he is."
Tanner said he and his son, now 10 years old, talk or email every day.
If Tanner's motion to vacate his conviction and sentence is successful — and he is released from prison — he said he intends to get back in the boxing ring.
"I will become world champion, hands down," he said. "The boxing world, it needs me right now. I bring a story, and I still got it."