As election season enters its final stretch, people serving time at the D.C. Jail are casting their ballots, voting for president and in the District’s many local races, from the crowded contest for D.C. Council At-Large to the lower-stakes race for D.C. Shadow Senator. They, like all D.C. voters, are also eligible to elect an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. Residents of the jail are constituents of ANC 7F07, which comprises the jail, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, and St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a school for people with intellectual disabilities.
The only problem: No one is running for the position this year. In fact, ANC 7F07 hasn’t had a commissioner since it was created in 2012, when D.C. redrew single-member districts to account for the 2010 Census.
The vacancy had gone largely unnoticed until a coalition of local activists started asking questions this fall. Now, Neighbors for Justice, a newly formed advocacy group, is pushing for D.C. Jail inmates to run as write-in candidates. But with Election Day just days away, time is running out, and the group has run into many roadblocks.
Julie Johnson, a co-founder of Neighbors for Justice, says most jail inmates probably don’t know they’re eligible to run because ANC 7F07’s commissioner slot has never been filled. “A lot of people may not know what an ANC commissioner is, or the potential of what it would mean to write their name in,” says Johnson, who lives just blocks from the jail.
In September, she emailed the Department of Corrections to ask if the agency could pass out informational flyers about voting and running for ANC that Neighbors for Justice created. Two days later, Johnson got on a phone call with DOC officials, who said they would ask DOC Director Quincy Booth for permission to distribute the brochures.
But despite several follow-up emails, Johnson never heard back. “We didn’t realize that there would be such a barrier from the Department of Corrections in being willing or not to disseminate these three pieces of paper,” she says.
After weeks of radio silence, she enlisted help from ANC 6B Vice Chair and current at-large candidate Chander Jayaraman, who notified D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine about the issue. Racine reached out to DOC, but was told the agency could only distribute information issued by the D.C. Board of Elections.
Undeterred, Jayaraman and Johnson took their request to DCBOE, but officials there said they weren’t comfortable passing out the materials.
“We are clear on the point that individuals in jail are eligible to be ANC if they otherwise meet the residency requirements,” a DCBOE representative wrote in an Oct. 23 email reviewed by City Paper. “But, at DCBOE we generally don’t get into the business of encouraging particular people or particular groups to run for office, since we need to remain neutral as election administrators.”
Johnson says that’s not her group’s goal. “We don’t believe we’re trying to encourage a specific person or population. We’re just trying to notify people of their rights,” she says.
Jayaraman doesn’t buy DCBOE’s answer, either. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to me,” he says. He insists it’s DCBOE’s duty to inform jail residents. “They should be educating voters there that, yes, there is an ANC seat available, and somebody from the jail, or the women’s shelter could run for that seat.”
In his view, having a jail resident be an ANC commissioner would give the public greater insight into what happens at the D.C. Jail. “For the first time ever, grievances about the conditions in the jail would have a platform to be brought up at an agency meeting, turned into a resolution or letter and submitted to an agency, and that agency would have to provide great weight,” he says.
But that could open a Pandora’s box of troubles for the DOC, which has recently been under fire for allowing poor conditions to persist at the jail. Last year, the D.C. Auditor published a scathing report citing a “history of severe overcrowding, unsafe facilities, and unsanitary conditions” at the D.C. Jail, and calling for a new facility to replace the more than 40-year-old detention center, which sits along the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C.
The coronavirus has only added to the DOC’s headaches. In June, a federal judge ordered a shake-up at the jail after the court found the COVID-19 infection rate among inmates was “nearly 14 times higher than the rate of infection for other District of Columbia residents.”
In an email to City Paper, Keena Blackmon, a DOC spokesperson, says inmates are legally authorized to run for ANC “as long as a resident can meet the necessary criteria and it is within the terms of their confinement.” But it’s unclear whether the DOC would allow inmates to fulfill their duties as ANC commissioners, like attending monthly meetings, even virtually.
Blackmon did not say whether the DOC would be handing out flyers to inform residents of their eligibility to run for ANC. “We are in conversations with the Neighbors for Justice and BOE, and are awaiting BOE’s guidance on how to move forward,” she said. “We will continue offering the materials and information provided by BOE.”
The Board of Elections did not respond to an inquiry from City Paper by publication time.
Though it’s too late for inmates to add their names to the ballot, write-in-candidates for ANC have until Nov. 9—six days after Election Day—to declare their candidacy. The only other requirements are residing in that Single Member District for 60 days before the election, and being a registered D.C. voter.
One sticking point, however, is that most inmates stay in DOC custody for less than a year, while ANC commissioners are elected for two-year terms. The average length of stay at the jail is about 285 days for men and 191 days for women, according to the DOC.
Still, some inmates are held longer than that. Since 2016, some individuals serving long felony sentences in federal prison have been repatriated to the D.C. Jail so their cases can be re-examined under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act.
Until this year, those people would not have been eligible to run for office because they could not register to vote, a requirement for ANC candidates. But in July, the D.C. Council passed a bill that restored voting rights for people serving felony sentences. Any of those individuals residing at the D.C. Jail for a longer period could now theoretically run for ANC.
Even if a jail resident were forced to resign their role upon being released, the remaining commissioners on ANC 7F could, under D.C. law, appoint someone to fill the vacancy. New candidates would just need to gather 25 signatures from their constituents to become eligible.
ANC 7F07 isn’t the only single member district with no one on the ballot in 2020. According to the D.C. Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, there are 22 single member districts without a declared candidate this year.
But the stakes may be higher for D.C. Jail residents. Though ANC commissioners have limited power—they can’t create laws or regulations—District law mandates they must be given “great weight” on a whole range of quality of life issues.
Johnson says she’s still hopeful that DCBOE and DOC officials will collaborate with Neighbors for Justice. Filling the vacancy at ANC 7F07 would give jail residents some much needed leverage, she says. “This is a wonderful opportunity to give people at the jail a voice, to have their voice be heard.”