Joel Castón was imprisoned at the age of 18. His past situation has made him keenly aware of the challenges prisons face or endure. And so, when he was contacted by the Washington DC prison to help build a program for 18 to 25 year olds focused on mentorship, he understood very well what the mission was all about.
Joel built the program and named it Young Men Emerging (YME) and the goal was to promote growth and development in young adults by creating an equitable and therapeutic environment as opposed to the old punitive and warehousing practices that mark traditional prison spaces, it wrote.
YME was designed to enable seniors who have been incarcerated for 15+ years to serve as mentors to recently incarcerated youth between the ages of 18 and 25. In addition, the program offers counseling sessions, guest speakers, and offers case-by-case counseling. bases and teaches financial literacy.
To teach practical financial literacy, Joel built a physical money system and had bills worth $5 and $100, with each bill stored in laminated paper. The monetary system allows prisoners to earn money, obtain deposits or deductions from their accounts.
“We built this system to ensure these young men are financially savvy and confident about earning, spending and saving money before they re-enter,” he wrote, according to Business Insider.
He explained that inmates earned money after completing an assignment. “For example, we have something we call community cleanliness. I gave a guy $500 the other day because of his community cleanup work. I had given him a special project: there was dust in our air vents, so I said: “Listen, look, get yourself a bucket, put some disinfectant in it and get a rag”.
Once Joel created a way for inmates to earn money, he created opportunities for the YME community to spend their hard-earned money. The mentors got together and pooled their money to buy items from the commissary.
“This has especially motivated people who don’t have money from family or friends. And the people who visit our community – like stakeholders, organizations and volunteers – have been touched by it. Most notably, someone made a large donation and we were able to purchase $5,000 worth of inventory for the YME store,” he said.
According to Joel, he and his team trusted YME money like the government trusted the US dollar. YME money has value and when someone does something, they are rewarded.
“They can take that money and buy an item, or they can try out one of our other gear. We have a hair salon 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 cared for. You pay $50 for a haircut, $25 for movie tickets, $100 to play Xbox, etc. said Joel.
The Business Insider reports that Joel is the first person in Washington, DC history to be elected to public office while incarcerated. This year, he won a seat on the DC Neighborhood Advisory Board while serving a 27-year sentence for murder. Now Commissioner, Joel works with the DC government, policy makers, advocacy groups and organizations to change the culture of mass incarceration.
Joel was paroled in November after serving 26 years in prison.