Joel Caston wins Ward 7 ANC representative seat while incarcerated at DC Jail
This article was first published by DCist on June 16.
There’s a new elected official in D.C. — and he lives inside the D.C. Jail.
Joel Caston won an unprecedented election on Tuesday for a seat on a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, besting four other candidates who are also incarcerated in the jail. Caston received 48 votes, or 33% of the 142 votes that were cast — all but one of them by residents of the jail.
“It’s winning Wednesday,” says Caston during an interview from the jail. “[I feel] like a representative. It’s a good feeling, but also a sense of responsibility.”
Caston, who has been incarcerated for more than a quarter-century, becomes the first person to fill the ANC 7F07 seat, which represents a district on the east end of Capitol Hill encompassing the jail, a women’s homeless shelter, and a new residential building. Though the seat was created during the last round of redistricting almost a decade ago, it was never filled — largely because of the logistical complications inherent in having people held in the jail participate in the election, either as candidates or voters.
In Caston’s case, he ran as a write-in candidate last November, but was disqualified due to a technical error involving his voter registration. That prompted neighborhood groups and the D.C. Council to push for a new election.
Caston, 44, is also the only elected official in D.C. who is also incarcerated; prison reform advocates say they know of no similar situation anywhere else across the country. But people who know Caston say they’re hardly surprised by his decision to seek the ANC seat.
“As I have come to know Joel over time … I’m reminded every day of how much we waste assets and people who can contribute to our community because they are behind bars for far too long,” says Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates for alternatives to mass incarceration and grew to knew Caston during his time at the jail. “He grew up essentially in a war zone, but if he had been given the resources and support that my kids get … this would have been a very different story from the beginning.”
Caston, who was born and raised in Washington, was convicted of murder for a killing he committed when he was 18. He served time in federal prisons before coming to the D.C. Jail in 2016; he has since been pursuing early release under the city’s IRAA law, which gives people who committed crimes as teenagers a chance to petition for reduced sentences after they’ve served 15 years in prison.
But he has also taken on other pursuits: he helped start a jail newspaper, has taught financial literacy classes, and became a founding mentor of the Young Men Emerging program, which uses older people like himself to provide mentoring and support to younger people serving shorter sentences.
Running for office was a natural next step, says Caston. And he adds that even though he was disqualified after his first attempt late last year, he was recently reminded of the symbolic value of even trying: An older person who had just arrived at the jail told Caston he had heard about his write-in campaign.
“He said ‘I’m so proud of you.’ There was some younger gentlemen in the holding room [too], and they were like, ‘Oh, you were the guy who ran?’ The conversation started flowing, they were like, ‘I wanna run, I wanna run.’ I’m just listening to them, smiling, but inside my heart was blushing,” recalls Caston. “This is what it’s about. If we can see one of us succeed … then everyone else will follow suit. So we change the narrative. I look at who was running for the ANC seat as changing the narrative.”
The next step for Caston will be adapting to life as an ANC commissioner, the corps of unpaid volunteers across D.C. neighborhoods who weigh in on issues big and small, from public safety and development to liquor licenses and broken sidewalks. And given his status as a resident of the jail, that may be more challenging than for many other commissioners. But city officials say they are working with him to make it possible for him to do his work.
“The [Department of Corrections] has been very supportive thus far and they indicate he will have 24-7 internet access, and they will be providing him with a tablet,” says Gottlieb Simon, director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. “He’ll be able to do what lots of us have been doing over the last year, which is interacting virtually. He’ll also be able to host some meetings at the facility with fellow commissioners, with constituents, though DOC may have some screening requirements.”
Caston says his first order of business will be to reach out to his new constituents, which include the roughly 1,400 people at the jail, but also residents of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and Park Kennedy, a new residential building that’s part of a broader redevelopment of the old D.C. General campus.
“I think my first job is to listen, to listen attentively,” he says. “If I’m going to be a voice for the people I have to hear the people. It’s not so much what I want to do, but what the people want me to do.”
Caston says he also wants to remain a role model for other people incarcerated at the jail.
“My role, my assignment, my purpose is to let people know that while you’re inside, you can think about political science, you can engage in civic matters, you can do these things as incarcerated persons,” he says. “Then what happens is we get an idea inside our brains: ‘Wait a minute, I may be incarcerated, but my voice still matters.’”
Still, Caston admits his tenure may be short: He and his lawyer believe he’s likely to be paroled by the end of the year, though he could be released before that if his IRAA petition is granted. If that happens, he’ll likely be ineligible to stay in the post.
“Part of my mindset is establishing something that can be sustainable,” he says of the seat he now occupies and hopes someone else will eventually claim.
“History was made in the District last night,” says Schindler, referring to Caston becoming the first person in jail to win elected office. “He may make history again, hopefully soon, because hopefully he’ll be released. And if he’s released he’ll lose elected office. He may be the first elected official to be removed from office because he’s released from prison.”