For the first time, a prisoner has been elected to represent a small part of Washington DC – including the jail where he’s incarcerated.
Joel Caston, 44, will be the new advisory neighborhood commissioner for District 7F07, an area that includes an apartment complex, a women’s shelter, and the DC Jail on 19th Street, where Mr Caston is an inmate.
“My goal is to be a voice for the voiceless, and to listen and listen well,” Mr Caston told The Washington Post. “People are feeling like, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ I can be an asset to the community.”
Mr Caston has been incarcerated since 1995, when he was convicted of killing an 18-year-old man in a DC parking lot. Mr Caston was also a teenager at the time, and is seeking early release under the city’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act.
In the meantime, he has spent his 26 years in prison learning Mandarin and Arabic, managing a monthly newspaper, leading Christian worship services, learning and teaching financial literacy, founding a program for mentoring young men, and, as of Tuesday, winning elected office.
As a candidate, Mr Caston promised to speak up for the “voiceless” members of his community.
“As the ANC Commissioner, my overarching goal will be to create a culture that will acknowledge the humanity of each person who works and lives inside the facility,” he wrote in a candidate survey. “It’s a term that I have termed ‘compassionate correction.’”
Mr Caston won 48 of the 142 votes cast in the election, besting four other candidates who were all inmates as well. He is the first person to fill the district’s ANC seat, which had been left empty since it was created in 2013.
As commissioner, Mr Caston will advise the DC Council and other local government bodies, advocating for his constituents – including the 1,400 inmates at DC Jail. His term lasts two years, and is unpaid.
Not everyone is excited about his victory. Denise Krepp, the commissioner for the district across the street from 7F07, says she would have liked to see more contrition in Mr Caston’s message.
“What I haven’t heard from the individual last night is: I committed a crime, I murdered somebody, and that individual will never come back,” Ms Krepp told WJLA the day after the election. “For me and my residents, I think that’s the first thing you have to say.”
For now, at least, Mr Caston seems more focused on his future than on his past.
“I feel presidential,” Mr Caston told The Washington Post. “But it’s not about you, it’s about the work you do.”