Why We Need Formerly Incarcerated People in Public Office

To truly tackle the devastating impact of the criminal legal system, we need politicians who have lived experience.
Abigail Glasgow Contributor
Oct 25, 2022

“When I vote, I feel free.”

This past spring, passersby could read these words on a billboard at 1201 Half Street Southeast in Washington, DC. The billboard was a result of a national campaign by artist-led consortium For Freedoms, in which artists, activists, and prison reform organizations responded to the question: What does justice mean to you?

For Joel Castón, the first person elected to public office in DC while incarcerated, justice is that feeling of freedom he experiences when voting. It is participating in democracy. It is representing constituents when you’ve experienced the impact of the criminal legal system yourself.

I first met Joel in an inside-outside prison education program while he was incarcerated at the DC Jail. At the time, he had already been incarcerated for 24 years, having served time in several federal prisons since the age of 18, followed by two separate transfers to the DC Jail—the latter being in 2016 toward the end of his sentence. As his peer in the classroom, I was immediately struck by his presence. When he raised his hand, everyone listened—his booming voice, calm demeanor, and the inevitable call to action that followed almost every comment he made filled the room. We became fast friends, and I was not at all surprised when he called me three years (and many 15-minute conversations) later, in 2021, to tell me that he had been elected to public office while incarcerated. (He was released from DC Jail five months later.)

Joel Castón serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner (ANC) for DC’s Ward 7. His constituents include those currently incarcerated at DC Jail and the residents of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter—along with Park Kennedy, the luxury apartment building across the street. Unique to DC, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions were adopted in 1974 as, according to urban policy expert David F. Garrison, “an experiment in governance at the grassroots.” Although unpaid, commissioners, like their fellow elected officials, voice the needs of their ward’s constituents. For Castón, the role takes on a larger meaning to represent people like himself, those who have experienced incarceration firsthand, in the political process.

Every second person in the United States has had an immediate family member in jail or prison. Yet, the subset of those in office who can speak to that experience—with knowledge about the circumstances of the 2 million people who are currently behind bars today—is far too small. Mass incarceration is the direct result of a series of policy choices made by elected officials to be “tough on crime” by spending billions on policing, courts, jails, and prisons. However, recent public opinion polling found that 74 percent of people agree that the safest communities are ones where people have access to gainful employment and economic prosperity, quality education, affordable housing and healthcare, increased financial literacy that builds generational wealth (something that has historically been denied to communities of color), and a foundation of trust between the community and the police. And, when people do break the law, even survivors favor holding people accountable by investing in rehabilitation, mental health and substance treatment, community supervision, and community service. These solutions respond to the individual needs of disenfranchised community members rather than targeting them based on, in many cases, poverty and race.

Castón and others like him are listening to what most people say makes communities safe. If we truly want our elected officials to focus on solutions—not scare tactics—when it comes to safety, it is crucial that they represent those communities most impacted by oppression and violence.

Castón first gained the right to vote as an incarcerated person in 2020, and that’s when he says a lightbulb went off. Touting an “I voted” sticker for almost a month straight, he felt that his democratic participation was a tangible communication tool for himself and for others like him—those who are most often relegated to the fringes and excluded from political discourse, even as they are often simultaneously used as tokens by politicians. Before voting and before becoming a commissioner, Castón had long been an advocate for incarcerated people. He was a founding member of the Young Men Emerging Unit, a specialized unit at the DC Jail for young adults where mentorship leads to culture change behind correctional walls. He helped to create a banking system inside the DC Jail and taught his peers how to navigate the stock market to financially empower themselves. The idea of bringing his advocacy into a more public arena—one where he could share the needs of incarcerated people with an audience that so rarely humanized them—felt natural.

Even after spending 27 years incarcerated, since his release Castón has gone back to DC Jail to encourage other incarcerated people to run for office when his seat opens. He has also phoned lawyers on behalf of his incarcerated constituents looking for effective representation and has consistently aimed to debunk the archaic and oppressive stereotypes often assigned to those who have been incarcerated. Castón is not alone.

Tennessee native Keeda Haynes spent four years in federal prison and eventually ran for Congress in 2020 on a platform that prioritized the kinds of investments often ignored by the political status quo: raising the minimum wage; access to healthcare in rural communities; reducing prescription drug costs; and more traditional criminal legal system reform measures, like repealing mandatory minimums and investing in reentry services. Haynes ran for Congress after spending six years as a public defender. Although she lost her race (she would have been the first person with a conviction history elected to Congress if she had won), her strong and inspiring campaign underscores the value of having representatives who understand and can advocate on behalf of people that she calls “shadow citizens.”

“I’m concerned about voting rights restoration and record expungement in Tennessee, and these are major blind spots in Congress,” Haynes said. “They want to pick our brains or put us on panels, but when it comes to picking the person to lead…”

She’s right.

Castón and Haynes are two examples of a small but growing network of candidates and elected officials with conviction histories—others include Eddie Gibbs, a state assembly member in New York, and Tara Simmons, a state representative in Washington. Even in small numbers, their impact on politics and the political process is tangible. They inherently understand that elected officials must work to create community-based solutions and prevent crime, versus reacting to it after it happens. They champion concrete solutions and avoid the all-too-common scare tactics about crime and safety. What Castón, Haynes, Gibbs, Simmons, and several others demonstrate is that politicians with lived experience know what their communities need to thrive. Isn’t it time we start listening?