Grace DoerflerJuly 16, 2021
Joel Castón with Georgetown University President John DeGioia at a 2019 end-of-semester celebration at the D.C Jail. (Courtesy of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University)

Joel Castón does not like to be idle.

Waking at 4:45 a.m. most mornings, he is an avid practitioner of yoga, a self-described “hyperpolyglot” (he has taken on French, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic), a Christian worship leader and a writer who just finished the first draft of his memoir.

He is also the first person in Washington, D.C., to win elected office while incarcerated.

On June 29, Mr. Castón made history when he was sworn in to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington’s Ward 7, where he will represent constituents in the D.C. jail, as well as residents in a nearby women’s shelter and a new apartment building.

Mr. Castón’s achievement may be unique in the United States. According to Marc Howard, a professor of government and law at Georgetown University and the director of Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, incarcerated people have the right to vote only in Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia. With enfranchisement comes the right to run for office, and Dr. Howard does not know of anyone else who has won elected office while incarcerated. “It’s such a rare phenomenon even to be able to vote,” he said, which makes Mr. Castón’s election all the more noteworthy.

On June 29, Mr. Castón made history when he was sworn in to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington’s Ward 7, where he will represent constituents in the D.C. jail.

Mr. Castón said he is committed to using this opportunity to be a voice for the residents of his district. “I want to magnify the humanity of the men and the women that I represent,” he said.

For Dr. Howard, who has dedicated his professional life to prison justice, Mr. Castón’s election is a meaningful first. “I hope that [the election] shows that incarcerated people have value, that they exist, that they are human beings,” he said. “It’s very important to be directly hearing from people on the inside.”

Mr. Castón and Dr. Howard have known each other since Georgetown first introduced its program at the D.C. jail. Mr. Castón has taken a number of courses through Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program, which was established in 2018.

Dr. Howard recalled how Mr. Castón immediately introduced himself on the first day of the program, initiating a relationship that has continued ever since. Dr. Howard said that he has found it inspiring to get to know Mr. Castón, as a student and as a person, over the past three years. “He embodies the love of learning and the growth that we as humans can undergo,” he said.

Mr. Castón said he is committed to using this opportunity to be a voice for the residents of his district. “I want to magnify the humanity of the men and the women that I represent,” he said.

Mr. Castón, for his part, looked back positively on his involvement in the Prison Scholars Program. He said that the program has helped him feel newly empowered to use his voice. “Sometimes you can fall victim to the narratives that come to be associated with incarcerated people,” he reflected. “What surprised me the most [about the classes] was how powerful my voice is.”

At the same time, Mr. Castón was quick to point out that he is far from the only “inside” student with talent to offer, emphasizing that his election is a victory for all incarcerated people. “There are other Joels, there are other Joelitas,” he said. “Many of them—myself included—have a heart for humanity. Having someone like us at the table makes sure that you can actually solve the problems.”

Programs such as Prison Scholars classes, according to Dr. Howard, are key to enabling stories like Mr. Castón’s. “There’s so much research and evidence showing that participation in programs like ours reduces recidivism to almost zero,” he explained. “We feel like we’re making a contribution to society by helping provide education and life skills to people who will be coming home and now will be equipped to make the most of it.”

Mr. Castón’s election may be unique—at least for now—among P.J.I. participants, but his experience of the program’s personalist approach is not.

“There are other Joels, there are other Joelitas,” he said. “Many of them—myself included—have a heart for humanity.”

According to the Rev. Raymond Kemp, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., who works at Georgetown University, the initiative’s emphasis on the humanity of incarcerated people is deeply informed by the school’s Jesuit identity. Father Kemp said that the initiative’s work flows “out of the mind and the heart of Ignatius [of Loyola].” Through programs like the P.J.I., Father Kemp said, Georgetown is “putting institutional muscle behind Matthew 25,” Jesus’ mandate to visit those in prison and accompany everyone who is experiencing marginalization.

The blended classes at the D.C. jail have been had an effect on both “inside” and “outside” students, who spoke to the importance of sharing a classroom and forming relationships.

Alexa Eason, a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, reflected on how her “Prisons and Punishment” course centered the humanity of incarcerated people. “The terms ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ classmates began to fade for me, and they were just my classmates,” she said.

Ms. Eason said that the impact of the class has stayed with her since she took it in fall 2019. “It wasn’t necessarily the content that made the class what it was,” she said. “It was the people.”

The blended classes at the D.C. jail have been had an effect on both “inside” and “outside” students, who spoke to the importance of sharing a classroom and forming relationships.

Mr. Castón expressed a similar sentiment. He recalled one day when an outside student came into class and asked if she could sit beside him. “We were both students at Georgetown University, regardless of the uniform that we wore,” he said. “Marc’s class had the dual benefit of not just the curriculum but also the human component. That was magnified by the students, both inside and outside.”

Harry Rose, a member of Georgetown’s class of 2020, took a P.J.I. course called “Forgotten Humanity of Prisoners” in the spring of his senior year. For Mr. Rose, the course became a particularly meaningful experience when pandemic restrictions forced class meetings online after just two in-person sessions. Amid the national shutdowns, the class continued to communicate virtually, sharing not only their coursework but also their experiences of quarantine and isolation.

The move online actually enabled the class to communicate more frequently than they could have done with solely in-person visits, according to Mr. Rose, and the connection became “a huge lifeline” for both inside and outside students during the lockdown.

The students checked in on one another all spring, recording happy birthday videos for each other and sharing quarantine pastimes—Mr. Rose said he shared opera music with his classmates in the D.C. jail.

“I think we as a society and as a democracy will be better off and strengthened by listening to the voices of incarcerated people.”

Mr. Rose said that he felt it was important for the inside students to know that the outside students were still thinking about them and still wanted to build relationships with them, even if those relationships could not be in person. “During a time when we were all confined, [the inside students] were experiencing maximum confinement and isolation,” he said.

The students’ response to the pandemic embodies the “human component” that Mr. Castón said is characteristic of the initiative.

According to Dr. Howard, the initiative’s work is closely tied to the Ignatian mission of being “men and women for others.”

The work of keeping the dignity of incarcerated people in the foreground is of deep importance to Dr. Howard. “I’ve had the privilege of coming into contact with some of the most extraordinary human beings that I’ve ever met,” he said of his visits inside the jail. “It’s very important that we as a society consider their humanity and consider the reasons why they are deserving of a second chance to come home.”

He said that Mr. Castón’s election is important because it shows that the experiences and voices of incarcerated people deserve to be included in society. Dr. Howard also expressed the hope that many other incarcerated scholars would go on to serve as leaders and role models in their communities.

“I think we as a society and as a democracy will be better off and strengthened by listening to the voices of incarcerated people,” he said. “So I hope that Joel Castón’s election is a first step in that direction, but that he won’t be the last.”

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