‘Setting the Tone for the Nation’ From Behind Bars

There’s a lot of potential in all the humanity this country has incarcerated

Diamonds can be found everywhere (RHK, iStock)

By Robert Barton with Pam Bailey

As a society, our perception of what is achievable and what is not changes over time. In the decades before August 1920, the right of women to vote was considered a distant dream. In the years before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education in May 1954, no one would have believed schools would desegregate. And today’s wide acceptance of the LGBQ identity would be a shock to previous generations. That these developments are now accepted social norms reflects progress in shifting what has come to be known as “the Overton window” — in other words, the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept at any point in time.

Joseph P. Overton introduced the concept in the 1990s when he was an executive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank. He argued that the role of organizations is not to lobby politicians to support policies outside the window, but to convince voters that policies outside it should be inside.

“The most common misconception is that lawmakers are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false,” said Joseph Lehman, Overton’s partner. “Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it.”

Joel Caston (D.C. Dept. of Corrections)

If that’s the case, then Joel Castón, co-founder of the Young Men Emerging program at the D.C. jail — for which I was a mentor, has played a huge role in shifting the Overton window. In the midst of a Republican-driven campaign to restrict who can vote (the Brennan Center reports that more than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions), Joel became the only person Pam and I have been able to document who has won office while still incarcerated (and of a violent crime, no less!).

On June 15, he won a seat on a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), one of the bodies of elected volunteers across the city who weigh in on everything from public safety to liquor license applications. Ward 7 is primarily made up of the 2,100-plus inhabitants of the D.C. jail, so the seat Joel filled had gone empty until city activists, including a new organization called Neighbors for Justice, rallied to support the campaign in which Joel ran along with three other incarcerated candidates. (Imagine for a minute if a “good neighbors” organization existed to advocate for the residents of prisons across the country! The problem is that unlike jails, largely located in larger, often progressive cities, prisons are built in mostly rural, conservative areas — and the residents see them mostly as sources of jobs.)

When we were in the jail together and various notables paid visits to YME — widely seen as a national example to emulate — Joel seized every opportunity he could to talk about the transformative impact of the program on the jail residents. (Note that I use the word “residents,” not inmates, convicts or prisoners, since we consciously didn’t use those labels). He talked to judges, police, legislators and even presidential candidates (Julian Castro, who visited the jail) and celebrities (Kim Kardashian, who dropped by as well). As he used the success of YME to make the case for the re-imagination of incarceration, he repeated his mantra: “What happens in the nation’s capital sets the tone for the nation!”

I sure hope that’s true and that the enfranchisement of those recently or currently behind bars spreads across the nation. Yes, we made mistakes. And we’re paying for them. But we are citizens nonetheless. We care about our communities, are significantly impacted by the policies governments enact (supposedly on our behalf) and have expertise (our lived experience) that could help reduce violence in our ‘hoods, help kids follow paths different from our own and improve law enforcement.

Joel Castón has been incarcerated for 27 years. During this time (most of it spent in the federal prison system), he transformed himself from the wayward youth who was convicted of murder at the age of 18 into the leader he is today. While behind bars, he led prison ministry groups, co-founded YME, mastered several different languages (French, Spanish and Mandarin), passed the series 7 exam to become a licensed stock trader, wrote a memoir and a series of self-help investment books.

But I think his biggest accomplishment to date is the one he just achieved. And although he recently won parole and will be released any day, he is determined to continue “speaking for the voiceless.” (The Mayor’s Office for Returning Citizens deserves a shout-out for obtaining and giving Joel a scarce housing voucher so he can stay in Ward 7 and continue to serve.) It is this accomplishment that should set the tone for the nation.

I’m not just saying I think prisoners or at least returning citizens should be allowed to run for elected office. This would indeed go a long way toward creating an inclusive society where everyone has a voice. But I care more about “setting the tone” to show the nation what can be accomplished when we move away from incarceration as punitive warehousing, which only leads to people stagnating or wasting away until release and then recidivating upon return to society. The YME model houses prisoners in an environment conducive to change and rehabilitation and makes it possible for people like Joel to blossom. And let there be no doubt: Joel is amazing, but he is not unique. There are many others who also have the potential to be leaders and are worthy of second chances. There are thousands of rehabilitated people all over this country serving long sentences who would serve society better if they were free.

Sadly, what Joel just accomplished could only have been done in D.C. (which has served as an example for the rest of the country by also allowing its residents to vote while in prison!). Hopefully, soon, this will not be the case. Big congrats, Joel. Set the tone for the nation!

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More Than Our Crimes

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 26 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org