The newest advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District said he has adapted to his role as an elected official even though he operates under the constraints of being incarcerated at the D.C. Jail.
“Things are going well,” Joel Caston, commissioner for 7F07 in Ward 7, said in an interview with the Informer. “Working a few weeks as a commissioner makes me realize the hard work elected officials perform. It makes me respect public officials even more. As an elected official, you are navigating moving pieces. Plus, you are constantly meeting with your constituents and colleagues.”
Caston has been incarcerated for first-degree murder since November 1994. In 1996, he received a 35 year to life sentence. Caston said he has served time in 16 correctional institutions on the federal, state and private levels. Since being incarcerated, he has received his GED.
He has also learned to speak Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, French and sharpened his English and plans to use his linguistic knowledge for his business and personal pursuits. Caston has taken classes at Georgetown University and other institutions and become a financial literacy instructor and entrepreneur.
On June 16, he made history with his election as a commissioner; the first time a resident of the D.C. Jail won elected office in the District. His July swearing-in took place with D.C. Councilmembers Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) attending, along with family and friends. Caston represents the residents at the D.C. Jail, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and the Park Kennedy apartment complex. He has tentatively been scheduled for parole and release in December.
As a commissioner, Caston deals with a wide range of issues such as zoning, traffic, economic development projects, liquor licenses, street maintenance and trash collection. To help him do his work, the officials at the D.C. Jail has created an office space for Caston. He has a desk, landline phone, a computer and a television. Caston expressed his surprise at the flurry of activities he has had since assuming the office.
“What I really find surprising is the constant communications I have to deal with,” he said. “I communicate with my constituents and advisory neighborhood commission colleagues by email. In the jail, people are constantly asking me questions and telling me about their concerns. They have been seeking my advice on a whole range of issues. I have even talked with the Jail staff and they have given me an earful. I don’t see it as a problem, though. I am honored and humble they seek me out.”
Caston said he gets his strength to carry out his duties by practicing meditation, yoga and reading spiritual devotions. He also practices physical fitness and stays abreast of developments in the world of finance by reading such publications as the Wall Street Journal.
7F Commission Chairman on Caston
Caston said he has met once in a formal meeting with his 7F colleagues through Zoom. He said they have been welcoming.
“I have also participated in a Zoom meet and greet,” he said.
Tyrell M. Holcomb chairs the 7F commission. Holcomb praises his new colleague.
“Commissioner Caston is getting acclimated to the role,” Holcomb said. “He is committed to learning and serving his community. He is doing the best he can. I and my fellow commissioners are excited to be working with Commissioner Caston.”
Park Kennedy Residents Speak
Caston said even though he cannot visit the Park Kennedy complex, he has communicated with some of its residents.
“I have received emails from them,” he said. “They have congratulated me and wished me well. They tell me how delighted they are that I am representing them.”
Corianne Rice, a Park Kennedy resident, said she has lived there only a few weeks but knows Caston represents her.
“From what I have been able to learn, he won the election so he is the representative for this single-member district,” Rice said. “He is the people’s choice. He has the right to serve the people. I support him in that capacity.”
Alex Hennessa, also a resident of Park Kennedy, agrees.
“I think it is great that he is able to be a commissioner as a resident of the D.C. Jail,” she said. “I think the people in the jail should be able to engage in the politics of their neighborhood and in the city. They should not be prohibited from letting government officials know how they feel. I am comfortable with him representing me.”