Elected from jail, DC official advances voting rights and racial justice

iStock/Stephen Emlund

(WASHINGTON) — After nearly three decades behind bars, Joel Caston is seeking redemption through politics.

The 44-year-old felon, convicted of murder as a teenager, became the newest elected public servant in Washington, D.C., this summer, winning a groundbreaking election for neighborhood commissioner on the city’s southeast side.

“It sounds great to have an official title, I must admit that. However, what it feels like is that now I have to deliver,” Caston told ABC News in an exclusive cell block interview inside D.C. jail. “My constituents spoke by way of voting, and how I have to do great as I promised in my campaign.”

Many of Caston’s constituents are his fellow inmates, who were able to cast ballots in a June local election that has pushed the boundaries of voting rights and racial justice.

D.C. last year joined just Maine and Vermont as the only places in America that allow prisoners to vote. Caston is the first incarcerated American elected to office with votes from incarcerated peers.

“I’ve been locked up 26 years on the fringes of existence,” said inmate Colie Lavar Long, a first-time voter from inside jail. “So, when I actually put — checked that box, and they actually said that he won — this person I voted for — it, like, reaffirmed that, you know, I’m worthy to be back in society.”

Less than 1% of the nation’s estimated 1.8 million incarcerated residents have the right to cast ballots from behind bars, according to The Sentencing Project, a fact that sets the U.S. apart from many other large democracies.

“In most places, you don’t lose your humanity, you don’t lose your civil rights, social rights, political rights when you’re incarcerated,” said Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University whose research shows civic engagement in prison can reduce recidivism.

Howard said it’s also a matter of racial justice. One in 16 Black American adults is disenfranchised because of a conviction, a rate 3.7 times higher than among non-Blacks, The Sentencing Project found in a 2020 report.

“If you think about the broader context in history of the struggle for the right to vote in this country, it started out being extremely narrow — white property-owning males — and then gradually was expanded to different groups. But incarcerated people was always a group that was left out of that progression,” Howard said.

Caston’s election is a milestone being celebrated by voting rights advocates in an otherwise challenging time for their cause.

The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to eliminate racial discrimination in elections, faces fresh challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court and from Republican-led state legislatures enacting an unprecedented wave of restrictive voting laws.

Efforts by President Joe Biden and Democrats to bolster and expand the law have so far faltered on Capitol Hill.

“Joel is making the impossible possible,” said inmate Ahmaad Nelms, who is serving an 18-month sentence in D.C. jail. “I want him to be the great commissioner he is, man, and show kids that you can be whatever you want to be.”

Caston’s district encompasses a historically black, low-income neighborhood on the far east end of Capitol Hill, including a nearby women’s shelter and luxury apartment complex, neither of which he’s seen or visited.

“A lot of meetings, a lot of engagement, has taken place over Zoom,” Caston said of his campaign and constituent outreach. “So now, as the ANC commissioner, one of the things I do have access to is a computer. I’m Zooming from the inside.”

The commission oversees ground-level issues of neighborhood residents, including liquor license approvals, sidewalk repair and public safety concerns.

“Some people are going to look at this with disdain, but a lot of people are going to think this is a man who is going to take a step in the right direction,” said neighborhood resident and Caston constituent Garrick Thomas.

Nika Hinton, another resident in Caston’s district, applauded the example he is setting for other inmates. “Maybe he’s going to take that experience and share how he got through it and so others won’t have to,” she said.

Caston said he’s out to prove the power of a second chance.

In 1994, it was in the same part of D.C. that as a teenager swept up in a culture of drugs and guns Caston was arrested and later convicted in the shooting death of another young Black man, 18-year-old Rafiq Washington.

“I was heartbroken,” said Delante Uzzle, Caston’s cousin and childhood best friend.

“You could get hurt walking to the store,” Uzzle explained of how unforgiving life on the streets could be at the time. “So, if Joel was fighting, we had to fight. If I was fighting, they had to fight.”

“As a teenager, I was once a drug dealer myself. I was once a gun man myself as a teenager,” Caston said. “And I paid a huge penalty for that, that’s my incarceration.”

D.C. Corrections officials say they believe Caston is fully rehabilitated and a model of redemption.

“I was shocked, but less surprised [that he won election as commissioner],” Uzzle said. “I won’t be surprised if he becomes mayor. That wouldn’t shock me one bit.”

Even the family of the victim in Caston’s crime has given their full endorsement, telling ABC News in a statement: “We believe in forgiveness!!!!!! … and we hope Joel will do good work in the community!!!”

Behind bars, Caston has taught himself Arabic and Mandarin, studies the bible in French and Spanish, created a mentoring program for young inmates and has published a curriculum of books that teaches the basics of investments and savings.

“We want people on the inside thinking like citizens,” he said. “If we can get them thinking this way while they’re in the inside, the overarching goal is that that would be the mind set on the outside. So we change the narrative.”

When he’s released on parole — expected later this year — Caston said he intends to lobby for greater enfranchisement of Americans behind bars even as the idea remains highly controversial.

“It’s called punishment. Punishment for their crime. And it’s unconscionable to me that we’re even debating this,” Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., said earlier this year during floor debate of H.R. 1, House Democrats’ sweeping election reform bill that would have restored the vote to millions of ex-felons. Republicans were universally opposed.

While 21 states automatically return voting rights to incarcerated Americans upon release, 16 withhold the vote through periods of probation or parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven more suspend the right to vote indefinitely for some crimes.

“It’s absolutely outrageous and indefensible,” said Howard. “Even though they’ve served their time, they paid their debt to society, they’re supposedly having second chances, yet they can’t participate in our democracy.”

Just weeks after the campaign, Caston is already inspiring a new generation of voters who see a stake in politics and public service.

“I think all lives matter, all voices matter, everyone’s voice matters,” Caston said. “And I think that when you look at a story like mine — and oftentimes we would just cast off individuals who are inside of incarcerated spaces and think that he or she does not have a value — I believe that my story demonstrates that, yes, we do have value.”

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