The need for “Local” Representation in DC’s Jail

Justice Policy Institute
4 min readAug 22, 2023

By: Joel Castón

In 2021, I won a historical election to become the first person to be elected to office while incarcerated in Washington, DC. I was elected as the first Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) for the Washington DC Jail (DC Jail) population, Harriet Tubman Shelter, and residents of the Park Kennedy Apartments. In this position, I provided a voice to the entire jail community, directly to our council members, and Department of Corrections (DOC) leadership. Like all other ANC Commissioners, I represented my constituents and advocated for a better community. After my successful parole hearing and my subsequent release, Councilmember Gray later appointed me to co-chair the Redistricting Task Force, where I oversaw the mapping of Ward 7. A highlight of my career was successfully advocating for the Washington, DC Jail to be its own single-member district represented by a commissioner. Commissioner Leonard Bishop picked up where I left off.

Unfortunately, I write this today after several concerning issues have arisen within the DC correctional system. To start, Commissioner Bishop was transferred back to a federal facility in Kentucky. This move reflects a dangerous neglect of the interests and well-being of those housed inside the DC Jail, and it curbs rehabilitative efforts by preventing incarcerated people from participating in the democratic process. I knew Commissioner Bishop while at the DC Jail and have seen his advocacy firsthand.

Prior to his recent transfer to federal prison, Commissioner Bishop represented residents on local political matters for the single-member district encompassing the DC Jail, 7F08. Every incarcerated person is more than their crime, and as Commissioner Bishop has demonstrated, each person has the ability to become involved in civic duty and help mend the harm within their communities. We need to allow those individuals who were once a part of the problem to become a part of the solution. Transferring Commissioner Bishop away is a direct attack on this idea.

Representation of the justice-involved population in the ANC is crucial, as civic engagement leads the charge toward public safety. A direct voice in local politics encourages incarcerated individuals to develop a mindset of citizenship and service. Finding one’s voice is an incredibly transferable skill when leaving detention and reentering society. It is also enormously valuable when incarcerated people are able to voice concerns to someone familiar who represents their interests. Moreover, witnessing an incarcerated person in a leadership position is inspiring and builds an important type of confidence that can advance rehabilitation. Commissioner Bishop was elected by the residents of 7F08, who deserve to have their representative of choice in office. As a result of the transfer, incarcerated people lost an essential connection to their community, and Commissioner Bishop’s highly productive journey of public service has been interrupted.

Furthermore, providing ways for incarcerated people to engage in politics and society enables transformative rehabilitation and brings an important perspective to the conversation around community safety. And in this example, the safety within the Washington, DC jail.

On July 20th, the DC Jail community suffered the tragic loss of Marktwan Hargraves. He was awaiting trial for the last two years. This is the 2nd death this year and the 10th since 2022. Poor confinement conditions are partly responsible for the high number of deaths in the DC Jail. Allowing these circumstances to continue is a violation of human rights and runs counter to the principles of righteousness, public safety, and restoration that should guide our justice system.

While an ANC Commissioner’s role is limited in scope, it provided real opportunities for me — and Commissioner Bishop — to talk to our local representatives and DOC leadership. These tragic deaths are a culmination of years of neglect and issues related to the carceral system, and locally elected ANC Commissioners can make a difference.

Prison and jail populations are always in flux, as people are admitted and released from facilities daily. This means that representatives serving ANC 7F08 frequently may not be able to finish their full terms. For all of the reasons outlined above, it is crucial that the District develop policies that ensure that the ANC is always filled by a directly-impacted resident. This could include reducing transfers and developing succession plans. Protecting the voice of incarcerated individuals in the Washington, DC system is imperative to improve representation and increase awareness around issues such as prison living conditions, which have only worsened in recent months. Both the public and our policymakers must be involved in this process. Specifically, the DC Council must design, pass, and effectively implement a legislative measure that allows incarcerated elected officials to remain in DC for the entirety of their term. Members of the public can support this issue by contacting their local representatives and council members, urging them to bring these necessary reforms to life.

If we had such legislation protecting incarcerated elected officials, Commissioner Bishop could stay within the single-member district he represents and continue his impactful role in the local government. Leonard has been a highly respected spokesperson for those who are incarcerated, where political confidence has a powerful rehabilitative capability. All of society stands to benefit from this. These issues are not Democrat or Republican; they are simply American, implicating the deepest values that our nation holds.

Finally, we must enact legislation ensuring that the DC Jail is run properly, including regular inspections and reforms. Having an ANC member from the DC Jail would also promote this critical cause, as they could advocate on behalf of all those who are incarcerated. Our district now serves both as a space for incarcerated individuals to speak up in local politics and as a reminder that persistent advocacy can result in true systemic reform. At the same time, however, we must fight hard to protect these reforms and to continue making progress in the right direction.



Justice Policy Institute

Reducing society’s reliance on incarceration and the justice system. We inform policymakers, advocates and the media about fair and effective justice reforms.