Voter enthusiasm has new meaning when it comes to Joel Caston. At 44 years old, Caston is voting in his very first election.
“You feel like a kid on Christmas Day and you unwrap the gift and now you're eager to know what's inside,” Caston said, describing the moment he opened his by-mail ballot.
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Caston is one of at least 300 inmates the D.C. Department of Corrections has helped register to vote this year, according to corrections Director Quincy Booth.
For Caston, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since he was a teen in the 1990s, it’s a moment he once thought impossible.
“Being able to vote, for me and many of us, is a pathway to citizenship. Full citizenship,” Caston told the News4 I-Team.
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The D.C. Council passed a law in July giving incarcerated felons the right to vote in District and federal elections, joining Maine and Vermont in preserving the voting rights of incarcerated people.
Prior to the move, the District restored voting rights to felons only after they were released from federal custody. The District also allows people with misdemeanor convictions to vote from behind bars.
Now, the D.C. Department of Corrections is tasked with helping register and collect ballots for all eligible inmates in its care.
The District is providing mail-in ballots, like those sent to all D.C. residents, to inmates inside the Central Detention Facility and Central Treatment Facility lockups in Southeast.
Booth said correctional and Board of Elections staffers are providing guidance to inmates who need assistance completing the registration process.
“Of course, we would be ecstatic in the event everyone who is eligible registers to vote and exercises that right,” Booth said.
The News4 I-Team has previously reported on the difficulty District elections officials have faced in registering incarcerated felons who are housed in many of the more than 100 federal facilities across the country.
The District must work through the Federal Bureau of Prisons to communicate with those inmates, but the BOP rejected a request by the D.C. Board of Elections and nonprofit legal aid groups to provide a master list of all D.C. inmates in federal custody across the country.
The agency said federal regulations prohibit the sharing of inmate lists, even with local governments, due to privacy reasons. The Bureau of Prisons told the I-Team it has emailed all D.C. inmates with information to access voting registration forms.
Out of an estimated 2,600 eligible federal inmates, about 400 have registered to cast their D.C. ballot from behind bars this cycle, according to the latest data from the D.C. Board of Elections.
Booth said his team has focused on bringing the federal inmates who have transferred back to the D.C. Jail, either to complete their sentences or to petition for early release, up to speed on their new voting rights.
“There were individuals that had been in the (federal prison system) and came back, so for them, a lot of this was foreign information,” Booth said. “They needed to get the information because their belief was that they were not eligible to vote."
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, candidates aren’t allowed to campaign inside the jail, where hundreds of inmates tested positive for the virus earlier this year and at least one died.
Nor is the jail posting candidates’ signs — just official voting materials from the elections board.
Caston, who spent decades in federal custody before he was transferred to the D.C. Jail to petition for early release, said he and his peers are devouring the news to stay abreast of candidates and the issues.
“We are avid news watchers here. You know, we read the newspaper. We watch the local news daily,” he said, adding: “Contrary to what many may think in society, the incarcerated population are heavily invested in what's going on in the political sphere.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.