First Prisoner Elected to Hold Public Office in Washington DC
by Kevin Bliss
Joel Castón, 44, a prisoner of the District of Columbia Jail, may be the first incarcerated elected official in the nation. He won the special election June 15, 2021 for the Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat, beating out four others for the position—who were also fellow prisoners.
A Georgetown Prison Scholar who has served 26 years for a murder conviction at age 18, Castón was doing research for a podcast he hosted when he found that convicted felons could not only vote in the District of Columbia (even while still incarcerated), but could hold office as well. After considering what it meant to give residents of the jail a voice, Castón threw his hat in the ring as a write-in candidate. He then prepared a quick campaign based on the principles of dignity and inclusion. And, with the help of the jail staff, Castón made a campaign video for release.
Castón won the first election hands down. But, an error in his voter registration address caused him to be disqualified. A special election was held June 15, 2021 to fill the open seat. This time, though, four candidates ran against Castón—Aaron Brown, Keith Littlepage-El, Gary Proctor, and Kim Thompson. What made this election unique was that every single candidate was a prisoner of the jail. Ward 7 was zoned in 2012, and then remained an empty seat for a decade. The zone (west Anacostia River) only encompasses three buildings—the jail, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, and one residential building. Every vote but one cast in the special election came from the jail. Castón won once again with 33% of the vote.
Castón was sworn in June 29, 2021 from inside the jail. International media immediately picked up on the unique story. Although as a Board Commissioner he does not dictate city matters, they do advise on policy governing zoning, traffic, police, and district budgets. This could have a tremendous effect on prisoners in the jail. “Imagine a single-member district where every voice matters, every disservice is heard, and every person is valued,” stated Castón. “Here’s an opportunity to become officially recognized as a spokesperson for a demographic that I care so much about, and so for threat regard, I felt obligated to do it.”
As a commissioner, Castón will now be required to distribute government information, identify concerns, and monitor complaints. Already, he said he has been inundated by constituents’ emails, over 600 within the first month. He wants to address gender disparities in the jail, living conditions, reentry, and education for prisoners.
He says his top priority was a financial literacy class, because poverty is ones of the greatest factors determining criminality. Teaching prisoners financial literacy will help them to maintain their freedom.
Castón said the election and what it represented should help reduce recidivism for those participating. Activism builds a sense of belonging within the community. The enfranchisement (the right to vote) of prisoners in DC is ultimately a result of activism. Prisoners now have a voice in matters that specifically concern them: 23 hour-a-day lockdowns, living conditions, medical care, food quality, etc. Becoming involved creates ties to the surrounding community. And, community ties are a proven factor to helping reduce recidivism. “If I can get you thinking like this on the inside, the mindset will follow you to the outside,” said Castón.
Castón may not be able to finish his term in office. He is currently fighting his juvenile murder case in court and if he wins, he will no longer reside in that district. But, he hopes to do some good while he is in there and pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps.
Editor’s note: Whether anything actually changes remains to be seen. The axiom “if voting could change the system it would be illegal” exists for a reason. In 1920 Socialist Party candidate, and famed American labor leader, Eugene Debs, ran for president from a federal prison cell after being charged with sedition for giving a speech urging resistance to the draft. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1918, which was later commuted in 1921. Debs received 919,799 votes, 3.4 % of the total case for president. Perhaps the tradition of running for office from prison will make a comeback?