After 27 Years Behind Bars, This Trailblazing Prison Reform Advocate Is Now Home for the Holidays

On Nov. 22, Joel Forgedón—dressed head to toe in a dapper brilliant blue go well with—exited the D.C. Jail to take his first breath of freedom in 27 years. Surrounded by a big crowd of household, associates, and group leaders—all of whom had been ready six plus hours for his launch—it appeared like his cheeks and arms may fall off from a lot smiling and hugging. After which, in fact, there was pizza.

From contained in the jail, Forgedón, 44, had based a mentorship group for rising adults. On Juneteenth of this 12 months, he turned the primary incarcerated particular person to win public workplace in D.C. as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. He has spent the previous few months taking back-to-back Zoom calls, emailing constituents, and pitching his monetary literacy enterprise to potential companions. However even with a platform the place he emphasizes “giving a voice to the unvoiced,” his constraints remained fairly seen.
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Thanksgiving, nonetheless, marks a brand new chapter. Beneath, Forgedón—who was charged with homicide on the age of 18—displays on his decades-long incarceration, shares his experiences as a Black man carving out mentorship alternatives for himself and his friends, and discusses his plans for the longer term. “My nickname goes to be viento, which is wind in Spanish,” he says. “Wherever the wind blows, that’s the place I’ll be. And I’m going to be all over the place.”

Joel Castón
Joel Forgedón—courtesy of Abigail Glasgow

Earlier this fall, I used to be launched for twelve hours on furlough—I went to Denny’s. As I ate, I shortly observed the fork was heavy in my hand. The metallic hitting my tooth felt off. I noticed I hadn’t used an actual fork in over 1 / 4 of a century. I’ve been incarcerated since 1994—I’m used to plastic.

I grew up in Ward 8 of Washington D.C. We grew up listening to Chuck Brown’s hit “We Want Some Cash.” And cash dominated every part.

Welfare checks got here as soon as a month, and other people actually went from rags to riches in a few days. You began to see this inflow of cash within the palms of drug sellers. We didn’t name them drug sellers, we referred to as them huge boys. These had been people I seemed as much as; they’d come as much as the ice cream truck, pull out a knot of cash and provides it to everyone. They represented success. And that’s the one success that you just noticed.

Quickly sufficient, you begin to see the identical folks you idolize get robbed, shot, killed. You understand they didn’t have a gun and suppose, properly, I don’t need anybody to kill me. Neighborhood turf wars are so entrenched within the mindset of younger folks. It makes me teary-eyed eager about it, as a result of nobody begins out saying, “I wish to be violent.” But it surely’s survival of the fittest. And you then go to jail.

Certainly one of my mentors as soon as stated that so many people act out scripts that somebody has written for us. That clicked for me: right here I used to be, attempting to be like all the massive boys. They wrote a script for me—and any individual wrote a script for them. So I made a decision to jot down my very own script.

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Alongside my colleagues Tyrone Walker and Michael Woody—each additionally tried as adults underneath 25—we constructed the Younger Males Rising (YME) program contained in the D.C. Jail. The frontal lobe doesn’t totally develop till your mid 20s. So we requested: why are younger individuals who have dedicated crimes throughout this transitory part being tried as adults?

Then we requested: what do these younger males want? We felt the reply was programming led by those that perceive their trauma. Our mentees don’t query my information because it pertains to being incarcerated. That’s irrefutable. That’s their buy-in.

Within YME we now have a structured setting—not disciplinary, however in a mentorship capability. The YME mannequin facilities private development, training, and different transformative companies for younger system-impacted males ages 18-25. There’s a sure time it’s important to stand up within the morning. It’s a must to maintain your room for inspection. We wish our guys to ask, “what does it imply to take satisfaction in my residing house? How does that replicate on me as an individual?” We even have a financial system—you may make cash, or deposits in your account. You may as well get deductions out of your account. My staff created assignments like cleansing communal areas that, when accomplished, warrant cost. Our mentors additionally got here collectively and purchased commissary objects and translated them to YME cash, which created incentives for people who don’t have any cash coming in.

Now when these guys go to courtroom, they’re proud to speak about their achievements and their development inside YME’s group. Certainly one of our first mentees was actually launched final month as a result of he was a member of YME. If I can get you appearing like a citizen on the within, that can comply with you on the surface.

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The Justice Coverage Institute employed me this 12 months as a advisor in order that I can roll out applications much like YME [in other jails and prisons]. I presently function an knowledgeable within the discipline so I may also help flip issues round for my brothers and sisters at Rikers Island in New York Metropolis. We all know it’s not debatable that they’ll shut Rikers, however within the meantime, people are nonetheless housed there and should be in an setting conducive for any human being.

The actual fact is, a punitive system will not be helpful for society at massive. Individuals on the within will, eventually, return again to society. The query is: what kind of particular person do you wish to return? It’s in the most effective curiosity of all establishments to have a rehabilitative system in place. The fundamental precedence, although, is stopping folks from coming right here within the first place. We have to put constructions in place lengthy earlier than an individual turns into concerned with crime. The unhappy reality is that though Latinos and Black folks signify 13% of the US inhabitants, we make up 40% of the jail inhabitants. We’re bearing the brunt of the jail industrial complicated.

Lisa Helfert—Georgetown College

As soon as somebody like me takes possession and says, I’ve been reformed, I consider in what it seems to be a citizen, and I wish to contribute, they need to be afforded the chance to take action. It’s a profit to everyone. That’s why I ran for a seat on D.C’s Advisory Neighborhood Fee (ANC).

With the ANC, D.C. has created a footprint the place unusual folks can run for workplace and vocalize the priorities of their neighborhoods: concepts round group engagement, or what to do with vacant heaps. That’s grassroots. When introduced with the empty ANC seat in my Ward, it was a no brainer. I ran and I received. I’m the primary incarcerated particular person to be elected into public workplace within the metropolis.

These aren’t glass ceilings, they’re cement—and I’m the idiot attempting to bust by means of them. However I’m starting to see how impactful my win is. Incarcerated folks, we generally suppose our voices don’t matter. However Joels and Joelitas can deliver worth to the desk in the event you give them an opportunity. Insurance policies must be rewritten to permit somebody like me to qualify to be a politician, to be an investor, to be a banker. If we are able to try this, then we are able to open the floodgate. We’re an asset, not a legal responsibility.

—As instructed to Abigail Glasgow. Glasgow met Caston in 2018, whereas each took courses within the D.C. Jail as a part of Georgetown College’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.


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