Ward 7 ANC Commissioner Joel Castón is free after 26 years of incarceration He was elected as the city's first incarcerated Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in June.
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Ward 7 ANC Commissioner Joel Castón is free after 26 years of incarceration

Joel Caston is the first incarcerated D.C. resident to win elected office. Courtesy of/D.C. Department of Corrections hide caption

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Courtesy of/D.C. Department of Corrections

Joel Castón, the Ward 7 ANC Commissioner who was elected earlier this year while he was incarcerated at the D.C. Jail, has been released on parole after serving 26 years in prison.

Castón's family, friends, colleagues, and supporters greeted him as he exited the D.C. Jail on Monday night.

"[He] got a chance to walk through those doors a free man after almost 30 years, and the first thing he do is he hugs his mother. It was a great moment," said Shannon Battle, who spent much of the day on Monday outside the D.C. Jail waiting for Castón to be released. "I believe everybody should have that type of support."

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Battle, who works as an advocate and mentor with the Free Minds Book Club, a nonprofit that serves incarcerated youth, first met Castón at a mentorship training while they were both incarcerated in the D.C. Jail. Now, Battle says, he's looking forward to getting to know Castón in a different context.

"He was a transformative individual within the walls — but I think out here, his impact is going to be widely felt in a positive manner," said Battle.

Castón, through a member of his support staff, told DCist/WAMU via email that he was taking time to adjust and spend time with his family before doing interviews. He plans to continue in his role as ANC Commissioner.

While Castón was at the D.C. Jail, he helped to start a newspaper for people incarcerated there, taught financial literacy classes, and founded a mentorship program called Young Men Emerging. And in June, he was elected as the city's first incarcerated Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. He holds the ANC 7F07 seat, which includes people incarcerated at the D.C. Jail as well as residents of the Harriet Tubman Women's Shelter and Park Kennedy, a new residential building in the neighborhood.

"My role, my assignment, my purpose is to let people know that while you're inside, you can think about political science, you can engage in civic matters, you can do these things as incarcerated persons," Castón told DCist/WAMU after his election. "Then what happens is we get an idea inside our brains: 'Wait a minute, I may be incarcerated, but my voice still matters.'"

Castón, who was convicted of murder when he was 18 years old, served much of his time in federal prisons, like many D.C. residents who serve their time far away from the District. He arrived back at the D.C. Jail in 2016 and petitioned for early release under the city's IRAA law, which gives people who were convicted of serious crimes when they were teenagers a chance to have their sentences reduced after 15 years. He was ultimately released Monday night on parole.

Castón's release comes during a time of intense scrutiny on the D.C. Jail. A U.S. Marshals Service inspection, kicked off by the complaints of people charged with crimes associated with the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, found "systemic failures" and unacceptable conditions in the jail. In response, the USMS has transferred more than 100 people out of the D.C. Jail and sent them to a federal prison in Pennsylvania. The USMS initially said they would transfer 400 people in their custody, but D.C. officials say they hope an agreement they reached with the USMS to address conditions at the jail will prevent future transfers. Meanwhile, advocates have expressed skepticism about the D.C. government's response, saying that complaints about serious human rights violations at the jail have gone largely ignored for decades.

For reasons that remain unclear, Castón was also nearly transferred to a federal facility last week — a day before he was scheduled to testify at a D.C. Council oversight hearing on the condition of the jail.

Castón was ultimately allowed to remain at the D.C. Jail and testify. He said he wanted to see officials create an immediate plan to build a new facility to replace the jail — but in the meantime, "people still have to live here." He also called for officials to form a committee of D.C. residents with the capacity to report on conditions. And he asked the D.C. Department of Corrections to expand mentorship programs like the one he created, so that more D.C. residents can have access to programs "that make them feel like a human being."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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