The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

26 years after being convicted of murder, a D.C. jail inmate is elected to public office

Joel Castón, at the D.C. jail in 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The District’s newest elected advisory neighborhood commissioner is believed to be the first incarcerated person to win office in the nation’s capital.

Joel Castón, 44, has been locked up for 26 years, since being convicted of killing an 18-year-old man in a shooting in a D.C. parking lot. While incarcerated, he has served as a Christian worship leader, a financial literacy instructor and the founding mentor of the Young Men Emerging program. He also wrote a memoir and learned Arabic and Mandarin.

On Tuesday, Castón won an ANC seat that had been vacant since its creation in 2013. He will represent ANC 7F07 in the city’s Hill East neighborhood, which includes the D.C. jail, where he is incarcerated, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and a recently opened luxury apartment complex.

Castón, who expects to be released from the jail in about six months, rose early Wednesday morning, as he usually does. He started his day by meditating and doing yoga in his cell, which is lined with financial charts — another passion of his. He said he learned he had made history when a corrections officer asked him about what position he had won in the election.

“I feel presidential,” Castón, whose political aspirations were encouraged by prisoner’s rights advocates, said in a Zoom interview Wednesday. “But it’s not about you, it’s about the work you do.”

D.C. jail inmates write, take photos and design their own monthly newspaper called Inside Scoop

As a commissioner, Castón will be serving in D.C.’s most local level of government. Commissioners advise and provide recommendations on neighborhood issues to the D.C. Council and other government bodies.

His overarching goal, he said, is to change the public narrative about incarcerated people. His first matter of business? Circulating a survey among his constituents on problems to tackle.

“My goal is to be a voice for the voiceless, and to listen and listen well,” Castón said. “People are feeling like, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ I can be an asset to the community.”

A native Washingtonian, Castón has spent more than four years of his sentence in the D.C. jail on 19th Street SE, which makes him one of the facility’s longest-tenured inmates.

His ANC seat was created after the city was redistricted in 2013, but it remained empty until now — before the new apartment complex opened, the only residents of the ANC district lived at the women’s shelter or the jail.

In July, the District began allowing incarcerated people to vote. One month later, community advocates banded together to start Neighbors for Justice and spearheaded the search for an ANC candidate from the jail.

Castón sought the seat in the November election but was disqualified because his voter registration showed his previous address, in Ward 8, instead of the jail’s address. Other candidates who won votes had not filed the required candidacy papers.

Efforts to schedule a special election to fill the seat were delayed by the pandemic, Castón and the voting rights advocates said. In the end, five candidates qualified for the ballot.

Neighbors for Justice founder Julie Johnson said Castón won about a third of the vote.

Castón will be given access to a laptop or tablet, an email account and a workspace in the jail where he can spend up to eight hours a day carrying out his ANC duties, Johnson added.

“It’s not just about a historic election, with a first-ever ANC commissioner who is incarcerated. It’s about giving a voice and visibility to a population that is unseen,” Johnson said.

Castón said he hopes to find a place to live within his ANC district once he is released from jail.

D.C. and Maryland have new policies allowing prisoners to vote. Making it happen is hard.

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