- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2021

If a politician holding public office can end up in a jail cell, then why can’t an inmate take the opposite journey — from locked away behind bars to out in front, leading a community?

It’s an audacious question that five inmates at the D.C. Jail in the District’s Ward 7 are asking by running for elected office while still incarcerated.

The five would-be public servants — Aaron Brown, 25; Gary Proctor, 43; Joel Caston, 44; Keith Littlepage-El, 59; and Kim Thompson, 63 — are the only names on the ballot in an election for a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat that has been vacant for a decade.

That will change Tuesday, thanks in large part to D.C. activist Julie Johnson, a co-founder of Neighbors for Justice, a prisoners’ rights group.

Ms. Johnson helped orchestrate the campaign to add an inmate to the advisory group in the D.C. neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. When a friend offhandedly mentioned the vacancy on the commission last year, she said, she knew exactly who should fill the spot: someone who could give voice to the prisoners in the D.C. Jail.

“This speaks to our core mission of just trying to be good neighbors, right?” Ms. Johnson told The Washington Times last week. “If there is a group of residents who have the right to representation, by giving them representation, you’re giving voice and visibility, which means you’re introducing additional perspective, additional forms of … transparency, accountability, additional tools to effect change and to elevate issues.”

Unpaid commissioners represent more than 200 neighborhoods spread across 40 districts in the city. Commissioners hold monthly meetings with residents to help resolve problems in their neighborhoods and advise government agencies on matters that affect their areas.

The open Ward 7 seat was created in 2011 through redistricting, which carved out a plot of land in the eastern part of the city that includes residential neighborhoods, a women’s shelter and the jail. It was likely unfilled because “it was a little-known piece of information,” Ms. Johnson said.

To reach potential imprisoned candidates, Ms. Johnson and other advocates teamed up with the D.C. Department of Corrections.

The inmates were confined to cells for 23 hours a day for more than a year because of the pandemic, so getting their names on the ballot from behind bars was a challenge. “So, in addition to not being able to see their family for a year or take a breath of fresh air for a year, they also didn’t have the ability to walk around and just ask someone to sign, you know, the form [that] they needed at least 25 signatures to become a candidate,” Ms. Johnson said.

Again, the DOC stepped up and sent a team of voter representatives to circulate petitions through each cell block. “This was a ton of man-hours, you know, by a team of just three or four people,” Ms. Johnson said.

In March, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation requiring vacant ANC positions to be filled at the behest of the advocates.

Council member Robert C. White Jr., an at-large Democrat who helped pass the bill, told The Washington Times last week that he is “very supportive” of having an inmate serve as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “By allowing a [jail] resident to serve on an ANC and giving them tangible things to work on, we are helping to prepare them to become stronger and more engaged citizens once their sentences end,” Mr. White said.

Voters can cast ballots Tuesday at the Park Kennedy apartment complex or from within the jail.

Ward 7 Commissioner Whitney Weston said in an email Wednesday that the election “provides a segment of the population with a voice that will be heard not only across Ward 7 but across the District.”

Last week, neighbors for Justice posted online a DOC video of the five commission hopefuls giving short campaign speeches. “When you get to see the candidates themselves — connect names to faces and hear them, their platform, and they all present as very, you know, genuine, kind, earnest people who are seeking to improve, you know, the experience of all of the residents,” Ms. Johnson said.

Once the candidates were selected and the election date set, another logistical question arose: How would an incarcerated commissioner attend meetings and interact with constituents? Ms. Johnson said they sent the DOC a proposal for ways to accommodate the incarcerated commissioner, and “what they are planning to do is kind of beyond anything we asked for or expected.”

“They are going to provide a tablet and a dedicated workspace or office to this commissioner,” she said. “And they already have plans underway to provide, you know, access to communication and information.”

The advocates are also pushing for commission meetings to be held in a hybrid format to allow the inmate to participate virtually.

Charles Thornton, who was incarcerated at the D.C. Jail and now chairs the D.C. Corrections Information Council, said the election is a step in the right direction for prisoners’ rights. “What we’re doing in the District is really a beam of hope,” Mr. Thornton said during a phone interview Wednesday. “It really shows what democracy looks like.”

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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