An advisory neighborhood commission seat in Ward 7 that includes the D.C. Jail has remained empty since its inception earlier in the decade and even during the Nov. 3 general election cycle prompting a leading returning citizen advocate and two leaders in adjacent commissions to call for the position to be filled.
Advisory neighborhood commission district 7F07 came into being in 2012 as a result of redistricting by the D.C. Council based on the 2010 decennial census. Since its beginning, 7F07 hasn’t had a commissioner and Charles Thornton, the chairman of the D.C. Corrections Council and a former director of the city’s Office of Returning Citizens, expresses outrage the district’s residents have had no representation on the neighborhood level for almost 10 years.
“The people who are in the D.C. Jail plus the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter and the St. Coleta School in the District should be represented and I am bothered by the fact that no one has done anything about it,” Thornton, who works as a special assistant to the D.C. Office of Human Rights also, said. “Ten years ago, the population for the single-member district was higher than it is now. There were enough people to have a commissioner then and even now and inmates are eligible to run for the 7F07 position. However, no one told them that.”
Thornton said if 7F07 had a commissioner, concerns about the D.C. jail could be addressed by District officials.
“Commissioners hold ‘great weight’ in consultations with government officials,” he said. “Government officials have to listen to commissioners and give a great deal of consideration to what they say. It’s one thing for an inmate to write letters and send complaints but it’s another if you are an elected official even as an inmate.”
Nevertheless, Thornton said he knows there will be challenges for a D.C. Jail commissioner.
“Would he be able to attend monthly meetings, even virtually?” Thornton said. “Also, he would have to educate the population about what an advisory neighborhood commissioner is and what does he do.”
Thornton said the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) and the D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE) should have informed the inmates at the jail of their voting rights and the opportunity to serve as a commissioner. He did note that after the D.C. Council passed a law in July that allowed convicted felons to vote, activity toward getting inmates to participate in the political process, including running for commissioner, took place for the general election.
Chander Jayaraman, who serves as the vice chair of the advisory neighborhood commission 6B, thinks 7F07 should be filled and has been active in that effort.
“The D.C. Jail used to be part of ANC 6B,” Jayaraman said. “That area used to be in 6B11. It is important for someone to fill that spot because they can address the issues that people in the jail face and with a commissioner residing there, their concerns will be heard and can be addressed by city officials.”
Jayaraman said residents who live near the jail and organizations such as Restore the Vote and Neighbors for Justice, have worked to inform inmates of their political rights and have engaged both the DOC and the DCBOE in ensuring the commissioner’s position can be filled. Jayaraman said a two-page document to inform inmates of the commissioner election process has been created and distributed.
Some jail inmates showed interest in being a commissioner, Jayaraman said, with Joel Caston, a felon serving a life sentence for murder, showing the most interest by filling out the DCBOE paperwork. However, Jayaraman said Caston’s paperwork didn’t receive approval from the DCBOE because of technicalities. He said other inmates didn’t qualify for consideration because of incomplete paperwork or other technicalities.
While Jayarman and his Ward 6 neighbors have actively worked with the inmates in the jail, Tyrell M. Holcomb, the chairman of 7F, said he and his commissioner colleagues are cognizant of the 7F07 vacancy.
“We have talked a great deal about potentially filling that seat,” Holcomb said. “That district includes Reservation 13 and the former D.C. General Hospital, both areas with economic developmental potential. A disservice was done when the lines were drawn by the council. The people in 7F07 are an important constituency and deserve representation.”
Holcomb said when the council redraws the commissioner boundaries next year in redistricting, he hopes 7F07 stays the same with a few adjustments.
“We hope it includes the jail and neighborhood residents,” he said.