Shameka Hayes, Prison Scholar, wins milestone election from jail

When Shameka Hayes was sworn into office on January 11, 2024, she made history as the first incarcerated woman to hold public office in D.C.

Shameka Hayes

Shameka Hayes speaking at the end-of-semester celebration for the Prison Scholars Program at the DC Jail in December of 2023.

Hayes was elected to be the commissioner of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in Ward 7. She is now the third incarcerated person to hold the position — and the second Georgetown Prison Scholar. 

“It was really unbelievable for me because I was elected by my peers in a carceral space,” Hayes said while discussing her victory. “It’s an honor and a privilege.”

Hayes will be serving until next January, as she finishes the term of previous commissioner Leonard Bishop, who was transferred out of the D.C. Jail in June. Hayes considered running for the spot last year, but did not feel prepared enough to campaign and was wary of vying for a leadership position as a woman in a male-dominated space. 

After discussing her concerns and aspirations with her mother, Hayes made the decision to run. She spent the last few months organizing herself and campaigning, determined to take advantage of this opportunity. 

After beating out 10 other candidates for commissioner, Hayes is prepared to fight for the changes she campaigned on.

She is especially concerned with the disparity between men and women, in terms of availability of resources and programming, in the D.C. Jail. Despite her particular concern for the women in the D.C. Jail, Hayes is devoted to serving all members of her constituency. 

“I just want to make sure that everyone gets represented,” she said. 

Hayes believes that her victory was due, in part, to the fact that she ran on issues that affect everyone. Aside from those incarcerated at the D.C. Jail, Hayes also represents the residents of the nearby Park Kennedy luxury apartments and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter. She also considers correctional officers who come to work at the jail every day to be an important part of her responsibility as well. Each of these groups, she said, are “a part of [her] community too.”

Part of what gave Hayes the confidence to finally run for office was her time as a Georgetown Prison Scholar. She is beginning her fifth semester in the program, through which she takes credit-bearing Georgetown University courses on a wide range of subjects through the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. Last semester, Hayes took classes including Anthropology of Religion, D.C. History, and Public Policy. She especially enjoyed Public Policy with Associate Professor of the Practice Jasmine Tyler, because she got to learn about the complexities of creating legislation in the United States. 

At the start of her time in the program, Hayes struggled with public speaking and doubted herself while in the classroom. But that once quiet and nervous student is unrecognizable today. The classes challenged her to express herself and voice her opinions, which helped her prepare for her campaign.

“When I first came, the first semester I didn’t speak for a month and a half,” she said. “These classes have helped me come out my shell.”

Hayes pointed to the importance of programming for those incarcerated in the D.C. Jail. Her experience with the Prison Scholars Program has reaffirmed the value of these opportunities for herself and her peers. 

“Since joining education, my life has been a lot happier. Not easier, but more fulfilling here,” she said. 

Like her path to her campaign, her journey in the Prison Scholars Program took perseverance. The first time Hayes applied to the Prison Scholars Program, she was denied. This setback forced her to reevaluate her goals and prioritize her education. Hayes says that while applying to educational programs, “you gotta want it.” For her second application, Hayes wrote from the heart about the value of education while incarcerated, and was accepted.

Faculty members like Tyler make students, including Hayes, want to continue with the Prison Scholars program. Hayes said that it was obvious to her and her peers that the Georgetown professors were passionate about their subjects and wanted to be there with the students.

Hayes was also grateful for another member of the Prison Scholars community, Joel Castón, the first incarcerated ANC commissioner. Before 2020, the ANC seat that represented the D.C. Jail sat vacant. Castón learned about the position and decided to run, but was disqualified because of an issue with his registration. In 2021, Castón ran again, and was elected.

“Without him, there would be no me. He’s a pioneer,” Hayes said of Castón, who was released on Nov. 22, 2021.

Hayes heard Castón speak during a Prison Scholars event in February of 2023. She explained that hearing him speak was a reminder that “life doesn’t end” in jail and that she was still capable of accomplishing great things. 

Hayes’s trajectory while incarcerated demonstrates the transformative power of educational programming in jails and prisons. She explained how the community “fosters you” and the classes “help you be the best you can be.”

Hayes is proud of what she has accomplished so far at the D.C. Jail, but also recognizes the pain that has come with it. She explained that her victory was a great milestone, but was simultaneously a “bittersweet moment” for her mother. Hayes has made strides towards self-improvement, but at the same time, her victory was a reminder of her decisions that led to her incarceration. 

Despite her past, Hayes is making plans for her future. As commissioner, she is committed to advocating for the people she is serving and fighting for their education. 

“We deserve more,” she said. 

Personally, Hayes hopes to have her masters degree by the time she is released. “Education is everything to me,” she said.

Prison Scholars