Joel Castón’s vision was simple.
In a campaign video put together by the D.C. Corrections staff at the jail where Castón has been a resident the last four years, Castón outlined his platform, based on the core principles of dignity and inclusion.
“Imagine a single-member district where every voice matters, every disservice is heard, and every person is valued,” he said. “To my fellow comrades, incarcerated residents in the D.C.Jail, my platform will be used to restore the dignity of incarcerated people—that we will no longer be judged by our worst mistake.”
By allowing that most basic form of representation for his community, Castón himself became a record-setter, serving not only as the first person to hold the Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) seat he now occupies, but as the first currently incarcerated individual to win election to office in the District. Castón, sworn into office on June 29, is making history not just for himself, but for the 1,400 people incarcerated at the D.C. Jail who are now, for the first time, represented by someone they were all eligible to vote for.
“It’s a vote for people who felt like they have been invisible. It’s a vote for people who felt like their voices do not matter,” Castón told The Voice a week after he was sworn in, the bright blue wall of the D.C. Jail behind his grinning face.
He certainly isn’t the only one who thinks so. Since his election, Castón has received media attention from around the country, a rare experience for someone in prison. “Having Joel in that position as commissioner-elect is a wonderful thing, and it changes the mindset of people who are currently incarcerated,” Tyrone Walker, Castón’s long-time friend and the director of reentry services at Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) said. “Now they like, oh man, I can do that. Which they can.”
The ANC special election, held June 15, was bound to be unprecedented. Castón’s new seat, ANC 7F07, was created in 2012 and remained vacant for nearly a decade. The district, just west of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C., encompasses the D.C. Jail, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter —a low-barrier shelter for women experiencing homelessness — and one new residential building. The jail itself houses those awaiting trial (49 percent of inmates), those convicted of misdemeanors or parole violations in D.C. (11 percent), and those convicted of felonies awaiting transfer to a federal facility (36 percent). The median length of stay is 223 days, though 40 percent of inmates will live in the jail for over a year. The jail is overwhelmingly male, Black, and under 40, a demographic that has been disproportionately policed and jailed due to systemic racism.
The main constituents in Castón’s district, incarcerated individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness, face structural and logistical barriers that prevent them from running for office. Due to complications stemming from impermanent addresses, lack of access to resources, lack of identification, as well as deeply entrenched prejudice against both groups, the seat remained open and uncontested until 2020. That year, Castón ran and won the seat as a write-in candidate before being disqualified due to an error in his voter registration address.
Castón first considered a run for the seat when, through research for a podcast he was hosting, he discovered residents at the D.C. Jail could not only vote, but run for office, and that the seat was open. He filed the paperwork but didn’t say anything for a few months, launching a small campaign just before the election. For Castón, who has been an active leader in his community, the seat was an opportunity to be recognized as a voice for the people he tried to represent in his day-to-day life.
“Here’s an opportunity to become officially recognized as a spokesperson for a demographic that I care so much about, and so for that regard, I felt obligated to do it,” Castón said.
While ANC members do not have direct say in city matters like jail operation, they do advise policy around traffic, parking, recreation, zoning, economic development, police, and the District’s annual budget, which can affect residents of the jail and their families. Commissioners serve as advocates for their community to the government, access and distribute government information for their constituents, identify residents’ concerns, and monitor complaints, but have limited power to actually make policy.
Due to a glitch with his paperwork, according to Castón, he was ruled ineligible to run after he won his first election. Despite the efforts of advocacy groups, who had been lobbying for someone to fill the seat and joined forces with Castón after his victory, he was not allowed to fill the seat, and the process began again.
In the June special election, Castón had four opponents, all of them also residents at the D.C. Jail—Aaron Brown, Keith Littlepage-El, Gary Proctor, and Kim Thompson. His victory, with 33 percent of the vote, came from support inside —in fact, all but one vote cast in the election was from someone incarcerated in D.C. Jail.
Castón welcomed the competition. During the campaign, he said, the candidates would congratulate each other in the halls, wishing good luck to their opponents. “I was like, this is what democracy looks like. Now we on the right track,” he said. He maintains that what matters is not just that someone fills the seat, but that residents of the jail have the opportunity to participate in a similar version of the political process to those who are on the outside.
“A pathway to full citizenship. That’s what enfranchisement look like. And I think that that’s a sentiment that many of my constituents also share,” he said.
Any form of enfranchisement is a newly returned right for some residents of the jail. While those convicted of felonies in D.C. are all eventually moved to federal facilities outside of the District, those with felony convictions awaiting transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons are still detained in the jail. It was only in July of last year that D.C. extended the right to vote to that population currently imprisoned for felonies, a step criminal justice advocates have lauded. The District joins Maine and Vermont as the only three jurisdictions in the country where those convicted of felony offenses never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated.
For Walker, this change was pivotal in empowering Castón to represent his community, and for many more Castóns to be elected one day. “You just changed the world for all the men and women who are currently incarcerated,” he said at his friend’s swearing-in ceremony on June 30.
Walker first met Castón in 2015 in a correctional facility in West Virginia, and they bonded, first as good friends, and later as colleagues working on the Young Men Emerging mentorship program. The pair also share a Georgetown connection; Walker was a member of the Prison Scholars Program (which he now works with through the PJI), as was Castón.
Walker was incarcerated at the D.C. Jail for several stretches of time during his 20-plus year prison sentence. His experience, he said, would have been much improved had he and the other residents been politically represented. “It would have meant a whole lot knowing that somebody really understood the issues we were faced with and to be able to articulate those issues with the constituents in that district and ultimately council members,” Walker said. “That just changed the dynamics.”
The U.S. has the highest prison population both by the sheer number and percent of the population in the world, with nearly 700 per 100,000 people locked up at any given time. Though D.C.’s exact incarceration rate is debated, given the complication of how those convicted of felonies in D.C. are incarcerated, the rate is certainly higher than the national average. Estimates of between 899 and 1,153 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents place D.C. on the list of the five states and jurisdictions with the highest percentage of their population incarcerated, and the highest-end estimates land the District at the top (though D.C. is admittedly unique, given that it is the only jurisdiction that is entirely urban).
This large population, as Castón observes, is often ignored in national policy debates, cordoned off into a separate section of society.
“We have a group of people who are incarcerated, often forgotten because they are incarcerated, it’s like their voices don’t matter. They are nothing, they are the scum of society, they are the lowest rung of the totem pole,” he said.
So it comes as no surprise to Professor Marc Howard, the founding director of Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, that Castón may be the first incarcerated elected official in the nation. “It’s certainly very rare, if it’s ever happened,” Howard said. Though candidates can technically run for federal office from prison, states can make their own rules about whether someone convicted of a felony can ever run for office, much less run while incarcerated. And most examples of candidates running from prison feature those convicted of white-collar crimes such as bribery, fraud, and racketeering (including the discussion around one former president), who are unrepresentative of the larger incarcerated population and generally not running on a platform of criminal justice.
To Howard, the enfranchisement question is fundamentally about ensuring incarcerated individuals are still part of the broader community. “When people get incarcerated, they don’t cease to exist as human beings, and they should continue to have rights, and citizenship is an important political, but also social and human right,” Howard said, explaining that most incarcerated individuals do not have a say in the political process. “That’s been one of the tragedies of criminal justice in America is that we have people who get sent away, and it’s almost like they get sent to another planet and they disappear and have no representation.”
While poverty is one of the strongest indicators of recidivism, Castón pointed out that community and civic connection can reduce re-incarceration rates. Even for returning citizens unlikely to reoffend, he sees enfranchisement as a crucial bridge to the rest of the community. “What type of people do we want back in society?” he asked. The answer—people who are civically engaged, people like the ones who voted in his election.
Enfranchising those serving time for felony convictions also dramatically affects the racial demographics of the electorate. According to D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) numbers from April 2021, 86 percent of those incarcerated through the DOC were Black, a notable overrepresentation of a population that makes up 46 percent of the District. Only 7.3 percent of inmates identified as white, compared to 46 percent of D.C.’s population.
These disparate incarceration rates can be traced to racially disparate applications of laws and policing. Nationally, only 5 percent of illicit drug users are African American (government data specifies African American instead of Black), while African Americans represent 33 percent of drug offense incarcerations. African Americans are also more likely to be wrongfully incarcerated, according to the ACLU. In D.C., police continue to disproportionately stop Black residents, making their arrest more likely, and Black families on average are 81 times poorer than white families, affording Black D.C. residents far fewer economic opportunities and legal resources.
Add to these statistics the designation of “incarcerated” or “felon,” and inequities only increase.
“We normally get stonewalled at the desk,” Walker said of his experience interacting with conventional power structures. “So having a person that is currently incarcerated formulating a desk which is different from the normal politics, which is different from the normal ANC commission of the seventh ward, it’s just phenomenal. It’s a lot of power, and I’m very excited for him. I’m very excited for him, and I know he can do the job.”
That job, Castón reported, has already begun. In addition to feeling humbled, thankful, and excited after his election, he was also feeling inundated—with over 600 emails. “I said, wow, I definitely walked into some big shoes here.”
But he has plans to fill them. In addition to his promises to listen to constituents made in the campaign video, he also hopes to address gender disparities in the jail and establish the seat as a mainstay in Ward 7 politics, encouraging other inmates to run after he leaves office.
Currently or formerly incarcerated candidates like Castón have a unique experience that allows them to handle the issues that matter to their constituents—residents of the D.C. Jail face unique challenges, such as a year-long 23-hour lockdown, inadequate living conditions inside, preparation for re-entry, and the education of incarcerated students. Without an ANC commissioner, residents have had no elected official to turn to with concerns.
Walker recalled discussions about ensuring access to sufficient calories for health, outside recreational time, and administrative remedies when inmates had grievances with correctional officers.
“You have rights within the prison that are constantly violated by those that are in power,” Walker said. “Those issues still exist. From my first time going to the jail to today, those issues still exist.”
Castón is beginning with a survey of the jail’s residents to hear what their concerns are, but he already knows one of his top priorities will be financial literacy. He’s taught classes on the topic inside the jail and wrote the “Currency Catcher” series on the basics of investing. “We know the root cause of crime is foundational in poverty, so we need viable economic solutions to that situation,” he said.
Educating incarcerated people about finances is doubly important when the vast majority of those incarcerated have been historically denied opportunities to build wealth because of their race, he pointed out. In 2020, white families in the U.S. had eight times as much wealth as Black families, and five times as much as Hispanic families. “Financial literacy is very important for people of color, because we don’t have wealth as a group,” Castón said.
Beyond that, Castón hopes to continue to inspire, especially those a little closer to home.
Incarcerated people have been fighting to improve the conditions of the D.C. Jail long before they had official representation. This became clear to Castón when he read Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr. through one of his Georgetown classes. In addition to criticizing the disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color, the book mentioned a prison campaign committee that used to exist at the jail. When Castón speaks about those prison activists who came before him, his eyes gleam. “I said wait a minute, we gonna need to reboot this right here, we need to get this up and running,” he said.
Opportunities to learn about and participate in activism from the inside are key to empowerment, Castón believes.
“If I can get you thinking like this on the inside, that mindset will follow you to the outside,” he said.
Part of this effort is reframing the narrative about what it means to be incarcerated and why people are incarcerated. Castón, who has been in prison for 26 years for killing a man when he was 18, has been doing this his whole sentence.
“Our narratives are often shaped with a single narrative and I believe that that’s not telling the full story. And I want to use my campaign to humanize us.”
Walker shared a similar idea, pointing out that when individuals are incarcerated and lose enfranchisement, they can often cease to exist to their community, meaning their growth and potential as people are ignored.
“People in the community never get a chance to see that, that has been the whole issue. Now they see it, see now they believe that it can happen, but it’s been going on since prisons been built,” Walker said. “Yes, people made mistakes in life, but that didn’t define who they were, because they still continued on with their lives while incarcerated, and I’m a good example of that.”
Though he may not be able to serve in the seat for long (he is seeking to be released early under a law that allows reduced sentences for crimes incarcerated individuals committed when they were teenagers), Castón’s term officially lasts through January 2023. His career as a history-maker, however, is only just beginning.
“Although I represent my single-member district I feel a huge responsibility to be a representative of every incarcerated male and female in the United States of America,” he said. As he receives praise and recognition, he hopes it empowers others, who he refers to as “Joels and Joelitas” to take control in their own communities.
Castón is sure they are out there: “I don’t know them in person, but I do know their story.”