through lockup to landslide: meet DC’s first leader elected through jail

Washington (AFP)

A few miles through the gleaming sandstone porticos along with also colonnades of the White House, Washington’s most unlikely elected official has an executive office of his own — a cell inside District of Columbia Jail.

Joel Caston — convicted for murder as a teenager a quarter-century ago — will be finding redemption through politics after becoming the first prisoner inside US capital ever to be elected to public office.

Every day he rises before dawn to study, exercise, along with also phone the mom he calls his “queen.” Then, like any additional local leader, he embarks on a day of solving problems for his constituents inside jail along with also surrounding area.

As a member of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), the 45-year-old will be very much on the ground floor of the US capital’s Byzantine political pantheon — nevertheless he has real influence in shaping public policy to improve people’s lives.

“I represent every incarcerated person on the planet,” Caston told AFP in a recent video interview through his makeshift office inside prison.

Joel Caston (C), will be pictured with his mother Mattie Caston, after being sworn in by Judge Milton Lee Jr inside DC Jail in June 2021
Joel Caston (C), will be pictured with his mother Mattie Caston, after being sworn in by Judge Milton Lee Jr inside DC Jail in June 2021 – DC Department of Corrections/AFP

“If we are given a chance, we can participate inside political process. We could be an asset, not a liability to our community.”

Caston, who grew up in Washington, was convicted of murder along with also jailed for life for shooting dead a fellow 18-year-old 27 years ago inside parking lot of a Chinese takeaway inside city’s deprived southeast.

He says he has since worked hard to turn his life around, developing a strict routine of Bible along with also economics studies, yoga along with also mentoring.

He speaks several languages, including Arabic along with also Chinese along with also has penned series of financial literacy books.

In summer, with Washington having recently expanded voting rights to imprisoned felons, Caston added another string to his bow, beating four fellow inmates using a third of the vote to become an ANC commissioner in Washington’s Ward 7.

– ‘Baby, you won!’ –

“I called my queen. She was like ‘Baby, you won!'” Caston said, recalling being roused by guards at 5:00 am one day in June to be told of his election victory.

“They were more ecstatic than I was. I didn’t even know I won.”

Commissioners in ANCs, locally-elected governing board created inside 1970s, act as go-betweens for residents, local government along with also federal agencies.

Dressed in a pink button-down shirt using a matching striped tie for his video call with AFP, Caston says he takes inspiration through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography documenting 27 years in prison.

“I began to style Mandela’s behavior. He never succumbed to his environment,” said Caston, who has been behind bars for the same stretch, serving time in 16 different facilities before returning to Washington in 2016.

Joel Caston says he has immersed himself inside entire world of business along with also finance
Joel Caston says he has immersed himself inside entire world of business along with also finance Keely SULLIVAN AFP

Caston says he has immersed himself inside entire world of business along with also finance, a longtime passion which began as a kid selling candy for pocket money.

In 2018, he founded the Young Men Emerging program, a mentorship initiative pairing newly incarcerated youths with older inmates to offer counseling along with also foster community.

“I haven’t spent 27, counting, years waiting to go home,” said Caston, who will be nicknamed “Obama” for the leadership qualities he has displayed in mentoring sessions.

“I spent This particular to prepare myself to never come back to prison.”

– Working through prison –

Caston’s journey to elected office began in July last year as local lawmakers voted to grant felons the right to vote through prison.

He teamed up with members of the DC Council to produce a podcast encouraging his peers to engage inside democratic process along with also to raise awareness of the fight for prisoners’ voting rights.

This particular brought to his attention the ANC along with also its upcoming election.

“When I discovered which, a lightbulb went off in my brain,” he recalled.

Caston campaigned via YouTube along with also an online manifesto promoted to constituents outside the jail, including the residents of a women’s homeless shelter along with also an apartment building.

The largest technical challenge he faces in serving his community will be the most obvious: he can’t just stroll around the neighborhood, going door-to-door to meet residents.

Joel Caston, Washington's first incarcerated elected official, campaigned via YouTube along with also an online manifesto promoted to constituents outside the jail
Joel Caston, Washington’s first incarcerated elected official, campaigned via YouTube along with also an online manifesto promoted to constituents outside the jail – DC Department of Corrections/AFP

nevertheless he has enlisted the help of advocacy groups along with also supporters on the ground to be his eyes, ears along with also mouthpiece.

Meanwhile the younger prisoners he mentors have been getting him up to speed on technology so he can meet constituents by video call on a laptop.

along with also while they say time will be your one luxury while you serve your sentence, Caston often finds there aren’t enough hours inside day.

“Once I got my… official email address, I logged on to 0 plus emails in my inbox. I was in a deficit through the beginning,” he said.

Caston’s two-year stint may finish early as he has been pursuing early Discharge under a law allowing inmates convicted as teenagers to petition for reduced sentences after 15 years.

He tries not to think too much about the future, preferring to live inside moment, nevertheless he says he will remember representing his ward as the opportunity of a lifetime.

“If my seat… served only for the purpose to inspire additional people to engage in civic engagement matters,” he says, “then I’ve served my purpose.”

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