I Ran for Office While Incarcerated. I Hope Others Will Do the Same
I was in my cell when I heard the news of my win—5 A.M., barely awake, teeth unbrushed. The unit’s correctional officer said the lieutenant wanted to talk to me. I was now a high profile detainee, warranting new protocols and more security, namely because, as the first incarcerated person to win public office in the nation’s capital, the media blitz had already begun. I had to get myself together, so I called my mom who had heard the story on the radio.
“You won, son,” she said. That’s when I knew it had really happened. I had just become a D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner.
I was granted parole and realized my freedom on November 22, 2021. But before that, inside the D.C. Jail, I assumed the role of unofficial spokesperson long before my win as Commissioner. Part of that came from Young Men Emerging (YME), the program I co-founded with my best friend and freedom fighter Michael Woody wherein a group of us who had served some serious time became mentors to newly incarcerated men between 18 and 25. We transformed a punitive environment into one that centered counseling, education, and financial literacy while activating a community—including administration, officers, and those on the outside.
With time, our mentees advocated for themselves and thought like citizens; a collective mindset that combated a criminal legal system designed to strip us of our personhood and snuff out our hope for justice. And when D.C. restored our ability to vote in time for the 2020 election, we ignited that citizenship.
Mobilizing incarcerated people to vote tells the outside world they can’t do whatever they want with us, that we get our voice on the record. So when it came time to cast my ballot in 2020, I wore that sticker every chance I got. “I Voted” lasted nearly 30 days until the adhesion wore off. I even co-hosted a podcast with a fellow mentor so we could circulate information on our newly restored rights. Like YME, the podcast brought in experts from the outside to discuss issues of democratic participation. And that’s when I learned about the seat for Commissioner.
The day we interviewed D.C. Council Member Charles Allen, he started talking about the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC): the group of representatives unique to D.C., adopted in 1974 as “an experiment in governance at the grassroots,” according to policy expert David F. Garrison. Like a council member, each of the eight wards in D.C. has Commissioners to voice the needs of their constituents. In fact, Mayor Muriel Bowser began her political trajectory as a Commissioner. So when I heard that Ward 7F—the Park Kennedy luxury apartments on C street, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, and the D.C. Jail where I was currently incarcerated—had a vacant seat for the taking, my antenna went up.
Between YME and the restoration to vote, I had a taste for civic engagement that freed me. It wasn’t a question of why I should do this, but why shouldn’t I? I was sentenced to die in prison; but now, away from the places that held me captive in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, New York, Kentucky—now, I’m back home, in our nation’s capital, and had a chance to advocate for my brothers and sisters inside. I had a chance to debunk the myths and the grossly misconceptualized definitions of what it means to be “an inmate,” “a prisoner,” “a criminal.” This seat was for someone like me. Once in office, I became a direct line to the D.C. Jail that hadn’t existed before.
No one had ever heard of ANC in the jail, and no one had elected to run elsewhere in Ward 7F. So, in the Spring of 2021, when I submitted my petition to run, Joel Castón was the only name on the ballot. The news of my win came a month later, but it was retracted soon thereafter based on a technicality. The Board of Elections proposed a special election and, by then, word had gotten out within the jail about my running and what exactly ANC was. Now, there was a new spotlight on the race, and I could feel this awakened conscience of my fellow incarcerated people who realized they could also be a part of the democratic process. So when four guys stepped up to run against me, I no longer cared if I won. This was a movement. We all needed to run.
When it comes to reform or alternatives to incarceration, we’ve made little progress by leaving the conversation to politicians who have not been directly impacted by the system; who have not themselves been called a number, or faced a judge delivering a decades-long sentence. As we call for more representation in politics, we’ve left out the key demographic of individuals impacted by incarceration. After all, who better to fight for record expungement, banning the box on job and college applications, minimum wage inside prisons and jails, or creating universal access to life insurance than those who have experienced these legal blindspots? As Keeda Haynes put it when discussing her 2020 loss in Tennessee to then Congressman Jim Cooper: “They want to pick our brains or put us on panels, but what about when it comes to picking someone to lead?”
As Commissioner, I led the Redistricting Task Force—the ANC’s Super Bowl—to make the D.C. Jail a single-member district, ensuring those incarcerated would have their own, singular representative. I served as treasurer, approving budgets and allocating funds to local community organizations. And when the Director of our facility received a ruling by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to depopulate—meaning transfer people, some of whom had open cases, without warning to facilities across the U.S.—as a direct result of January 6, 2021, I stepped in.
Those convicted in the insurrection became my cellmates and constituents, which meant I was giving representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene tours of the facility. At the time, I didn’t know who she was, nor did I know many felt she was there to advance the needs of the January sixers. I did know that what Representative Greene said about the jail was accurate: it was“like a prisoner of war” camp; we were“in torturous lockdown.” It always had been, we always had been. But trouble isn’t trouble until it’s yours. Soon after, the call for depopulating the Jail came out of an inspection by the U.S. Marshals Service, citing “systemic failure” like unsanitary conditions, mistreatment by guards, and poor quality food, all of which had been recently “raised by various members of the judiciary.”
We had a new, unprecedented microscope on us. Consequently, FBOP issued a ruling to transfer 400 individuals from the jail. The 40 incarcerated after January 6 were not on this list, but I was. When my name was added, my heart dropped. To be taken out of the jail meant I’d lose my title and my access to constituents. At this point in my carceral journey, I had been granted parole and was actively engaged in my transition: securing my apartment, opening a bank account, identifying employment opportunities. And still. Still it could hang over my head that, at any given moment, I could be handcuffed, wrapped in belly chains with a black box on my hands, stored like a package in a plane or van for 6 to 12 hours, all to head to a facility where I’d have to adapt to new prison politics.
To combat the transfers, including my own, Councilmember Allen held a special hearing where I was given the chance to speak. As a Commissioner on the inside, I knew the terrain, knew the stakes, knew what it felt like when we all watched the insurrectionists on the community room’s TV, knowing had they looked like us they would have been killed on site. I testified that the facility’s poor, unsanitary, and hostile conditions existed long before the incarceration of these people—they just came to the forefront because a group of mostly white folks were raising hell. I shared that FBOP’s “solution” would only exacerbate the situation. Those individuals would be taken farther away from their communities and family visitors, with limited access to their legal representation which, for those with open cases, was paramount. What’s more, none of these people had complained about their conditions; they didn’t want to leave. Eventually, I was taken off the list, but 400 other men just like me were not. And on July 19 of this year, it was announced that Commissioner Bishop, to whom I passed the baton, was also ripped from his post by the FBOP.
When I ran for my seat in 2021, I was the only incarcerated person to run in the first round. In the last election when I passed the baton, there were 20 candidates. Our movement is growing, and my win coincided with other elected officials impacted by incarceration, like Washington Representative Tarra Simmons, who is fighting to increase wages for those inside; Rhode Island Representative Cherie Cruz, who is tackling parole recalculation and record expungement; New York Assembly member Eddie Gibbs, who launched a democratic club for people with conviction histories; and, just last month, Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, who was elected as Council member in Harlem. Together, we’re demonstrating that our people have a voice. Together, we’re redefining what the blueprint for political leadership looks like.—As told to Abigail Glasgow
TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.