The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

While incarcerated in the D.C. jail, a candidate fights for an ANC seat

Joel Caston, pictured at the D.C. jail in 2019. He ran for the post of advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the jail this fall. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Joel Caston has filled many roles during his 26 years of incarceration, from youth mentor to published author to financial literacy instructor for his fellow inmates.

Now he’s seeking a new job: elected official.

Caston ran in November for a long-vacant seat on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, D.C.’s most granular level of local government, with the goal of representing inmates at the D.C. jail as the first person to hold the office while incarcerated.

But his pursuit has been hampered by a paperwork error, and the D.C. Board of Elections says he won’t be allowed to take office. Caston and his advocates outside the jail say they aren’t giving up on finding a solution.

“If I’m able to be an elected official, part of my role is to raise the witness of the importance of civic engagement,” said Caston, 44. “If these individuals can take an interest in political science and civic engagement, I think we can put a dent in crime, which ultimately results in our city being safer. So this is very important.”

Caston, a native Washingtonian, was convicted of first-degree murder for a killing he committed at age 18. He served time in federal prisons before he was transferred back to the District in 2016 to await new hearings in his ongoing case.

His four years in the D.C. jail make him one of the longest-tenured inmates in the facility on 19th Street SE, which more often houses those awaiting trial or serving sentences under a year.

In those years, he has gotten involved in many things — the inmate newspaper, a podcast, teaching financial literacy classes and more.

D.C. Jail inmates have their own newspaper, Inside Scoop

“I just want the populace here to think differently, to see themselves as citizens. Most of the guys didn’t even hear the word ‘community’ until they came inside,” Caston said.

When he was arrested in 1994, D.C. police said officers had spotted him in a car, holding a semiautomatic weapon to a man’s head. Caston describes his long-ago actions as those of an “emerging adult,” someone he views as far less mature than the “nerd” he has grown up to be.

“I like to say I was awoken during this entire time” in prison, said Caston, who taught himself finance and self-published books on the subject, writes articles about incarceration and has spent the lonely months of the coronavirus pandemic getting started on a memoir. “I paid attention. Thanks to God, I haven’t succumbed to some of the normal things.”

Caston, who said one of his greatest hopes is to be released so that he can spend time with his 78-year-old mother, has long been a bit of a local politics geek. After reading the news, he sometimes writes notes on a jail whiteboard so that other inmates can see what the D.C. Council is up to.

This fall, an ANC commissioner in the Hill East neighborhood not far from the jail came to a realization: Ever since redistricting in 2013 created a new seat, ANC 7F07, whose only occupied residential buildings are the jail and a nearby women’s shelter, that seat has been empty.

Chander Jayaraman, the commissioner in adjacent ANC 6B, said someone from the jail or the shelter ought to run for the seat, before a brand-new residential complex whose construction is nearly finished opens and brings an influx of residents.

“It would be the first time that the concerns and issues within the jail would have an official legal elected platform,” said Jayaraman, who was in the midst of his own campaign for D.C. Council when he came up with the idea.

Jayaraman talked to Georgetown University volunteers about setting up a process to facilitate a smooth transition if an inmate was elected to the seat and then released from jail in the middle of his ANC term. He got in touch with advocates who work with incarcerated Washingtonians, and those advocates started asking inmates if they wanted to run.

By the time Caston heard about the opportunity and declared he wanted to pursue it, the election was fast approaching. Rules meant to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in the jail meant that he had trouble campaigning face to face for votes. Some inmates in nearby cells told him that they were registered to vote in Maryland, where they lived before their arrests, and could not vote in the District.

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

In the end, Caston received only one vote, according to Board of Elections spokesman Nicholas Jacobs. But one vote should have been enough to win.

Only 23 people cast ballots. Three wrote in ineligible terms, like “myself.” Nineteen votes were for people who hadn’t filed paperwork to run for ANC commissioner. And that left Caston.

But Jacobs says the Board of Elections disqualified Caston because on his voter registration, he used a previous address, in Ward 8, rather than the address of the jail, which would make him eligible to serve on a Ward 7 ANC.

Caston’s advocates quickly tried to remedy the problem, including delivering a signed and witnessed affidavit from Caston to the Board of Elections affirming that he has lived at the jail for well over the required two-month residency period.

The board was unmoved. The seat will remain vacant, Jacobs said. (The District has suspended special elections to fill open ANC seats during the coronavirus public health emergency.)

Jayaraman asked the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) to look into whether there’s anything that can be done to get Caston into the job. Marrisa Geller, a spokeswoman for Racine, said that staff members in the office have helped advocates navigate the process of trying to get Caston seated but have not intervened directly with the Board of Elections.

“I see it as a fairness issue,” Jayaraman said, pointing to the District’s recent legislation expanding voting rights to prisoners. “If you’re going to go through and restore the vote, then they ought to have not just partial rights.”

Caston agreed. “The incarcerated population are members of Ward 7,” Caston said. “I hope that it can be remedied. I signed the affidavit and tried to get my address corrected. . . . I think it would be such a high time for the D.C. Board of Elections to really move expeditiously to fill the office.”

By the time the next election comes around in two years, Caston said, he hopes he will be out of jail. Before he goes, he’d like to set an example of how to be an incarcerated elected official, for others who might run to represent the jail in the future.

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