Joel Castón was incarcerated when he was 18 years old. His past predicament made him quite aware of the challenges prisons face or endure. And so when he was contacted by the Washington DC Jail to help build a program for 18 to 25-year-olds focused around mentorship, he understood quite well what the assignment was about.
Joel built the program and named it Young Men Emerging (YME) and the aim was to promote growth and development among young adults by creating an equitable and therapeutic environment as opposed to the old punitive and warehousing practices that mark traditional carceral spaces, he wrote.
YME was designed to allow older people who have been incarcerated for 15 years and above to serve as mentors to recently incarcerated youth between 18 and 25. In addition, the program has counseling sessions, invites speakers and offers advice on a case-by-case basis as well as teaches financial literacy.
To teach practical financial literacy, Joel built a physical monetary system and had bills worth $5 and $100, with each bill stored as laminated paper. The monetary system allows the inmates to make money, get deposits or deductions in their accounts.
“We built this system to ensure these young men become financially literate and confident about earning, spending, and saving money before reentry,” he wrote, according to the Business Insider.
He explained that inmates earned money after completing an assignment. “For instance, we’ve got something we call community clean. I gave a guy $500 the other day because of his community-clean work. I had given him a special project: There was dust in our vents, so I said, ‘Listen, take a look, get yourself a bucket, put some disinfectant in there, and grab yourself a rag’.”
Once Joel created an avenue for inmates to earn money, he created opportunities for the YME community to spend their hard-earned money. The mentors came together and pooled their money to buy commissary items.
“This particularly motivated individuals who don’t have money coming in from family or friends. And people who visit our community — like stakeholders, organizations, and volunteers — have been moved by this. Most notably, someone made a sizable donation, and we were able to buy $5,000 in inventory for the YME store,” he said.
According to Joel, he and his team have put faith behind YME money like the government has put its faith behind the US dollar. The YME money has value and when someone does something, they get rewarded.
“They can take that money and buy an item, or they can try one of our other amenities. We have a barbershop because my motto is if you look good, you feel good and you act good. Now, when a guy has an outside visitor, like family, he can feel good and be well-groomed. You pay $50 for a haircut, $25 for movie tickets, $100 to play Xbox, etc.,” Joel said.
The Business Insider reports that Joel is the first person in the history of Washington, DC, to be elected to public office while incarcerated. This year, he won a seat on the D.C. advisory neighborhood commission from prison while serving a 27-year sentence for murder. Now a commissioner, Joel works with the DC government, policymakers, advocacy groups, and organizations to change the culture of mass incarceration.
Joel was released on parole this November after serving 26 years in prison.