By Myles Walker,
Special to the AFRO

Leonard Bishop, an incarcerated citizen serving as an elected official for D.C. residents was transferred from D.C.’s Correctional Treatment Facility to an unknown location on July 20, ending his term as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) prematurely. 

The transfer removed Bishop from the city, making him ineligible and unable to continue in his duties as a commissioner for an electoral area known as Single Member District 7F08. Each ANC area is subdivided into a number of smaller areas with one Commissioner elected per area or district, each is called a Single Member District (SMD). The SMDs consist of about 2,000 people. 

Bishop was charged with a murder he claims he did not commit in 1994 in connection to a fatal shooting in Southeast D.C. He has been serving a life sentence in prison since the age of 19. Over the years, he has petitioned for his release through the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which was denied. He has also tried to gain his freedom from the Innocence Protection Act which is awaiting a verdict from a judge. 

Throughout his 29 years in prison, Bishop has worked as a mentor to local teens and youth through the program LEAD Up! And more recently, as an ANC, Bishop has received access to a phone, desk and computer to complete his duties as an elected official with Danjuma Gaskins serving as his proxy in cases where he may be absent. The AFRO tried to reach out to Bishop but did not receive a response in lieu of his transfer, which caused him to temporarily lose access to a computer.

The community Bishop served included 1,000 local residents and roughly 1,000 inmates incarcerated in the D.C. Jail. Bishop was sworn in on Jan. 12 to become only the second commissioner to be elected while incarcerated, after Joel Castón in 2021. He was permitted to testify in front of the D.C. Council, which no other inmates have been permitted to do. He was relocated quickly after. 

D.C. officials immediately took action to protest the transfer. The day before it took place, more than 60 of Bishop’s fellow commissioners collaborated on a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Councilmembers Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Robert White, Jr. (D-At Large) that extolled Bishop’s work and pleaded for assistance with keeping him in the city. 

The commissioners contend in the letter that the “anti-democratic effort” to transfer Bishop and relieve him of his post “would not only destabilize and disenfranchise the residents he represents, but also contradicts best practices regarding reducing recidivism and strengthening community safety.”

“No other jurisdiction in the country would countenance the unilateral removal of an elected official from the community they represent, and the District should not accept it in this case,” the letter reads.

Commissioner Tyrell Holcomb (7F01), one of the letter’s signatories and the chair of ANC 7F, in which Bishop serves, expressed his discontent with the transfer.

“I am frustrated beyond measure with the transfer of Commissioner Bishop,” Holcomb told the AFRO. He said that the difficulty of successfully advocating for Bishop to stay “sheds light on the need for our city to have a more respected voice as relates to matters that impact us as a city—that should be a state—as well as the residents of the District of Columbia.”

Bishop has been heavily focused on expanding the rights and improving the living situations of D.C. Jail inmates during his time in office. Within the D.C. Jail, he has fought to improve the quality of food and the efficiency of mail service, establish more programs for inmates, and give inmates the right to testify at D.C. Council meetings.

Bishop believes he will ultimately be transferred to USP McCreary, a Kentucky penitentiary where he was previously incarcerated. Bishop says that he was not given an explanation for the transfer. The D.C. Jail declined the AFRO’s request for comment. However, the Bureau of Prisons did provide this statement, “Inmates who were previously in BOP custody and who have not completed their sentence may be outside BOP custody for a period of time for court hearings, medical treatment, or for other reasons.  We do not provide specific information on the status of inmates who are not in the custody of the BOP for safety, security, or privacy reasons.”

Holcomb called Bishop an “invaluable” and “major asset to the 7F commission,” and a “champion for the residents of D.C. Jail as well as the residents of the Tubman Women’s Shelter,” a Southeast D.C. homeless shelter that Bishop works and advocates for.

Another of the letter’s signatories, Commissioner Ashley Renee Ruff (7F02) called Bishop’s transfer “a shame,” and said that his removal leaves the inmates of the D.C. Jail without a voice.

“He was definitely an asset to our community, especially to the jail,” said Ruff. “We had better insight into what was going on and the things that were needed inside of the jail .” 

Commissioner Shirley Thompson-Wright (7F07), the treasurer of ANC 7F, worked closely with Bishop by virtue of representing the Single Member District nearest to his. Thompson-Wright questioned the jail’s ethics in allowing Bishop to run while such a transfer was possible.

“If they’ve known from the beginning that he was going to be sent back after a short period, he should’ve never been allowed to run,” said the commissioner. “That’s doing an injustice to the inmates over at the facility.” 

Thompson-Wright said that the jail’s actions feel “dishonest” and as if they could be in response to Bishop’s efforts to improve conditions within the facility.

“He had a lot of concerns, and that’s what I kind of thought that this stemmed from, that he had so many concerns over at the jail in reference to living conditions and the way that women are being treated. He voiced a lot of concerns about it. I thought maybe that’s what this actually was, something like ‘We’re just getting rid of him now because he’s too vocal.’”

It remains unclear how soon the vacancy left by Bishop can be filled.
“I am incredibly disappointed to see Commissioner Bishop transferred out of D.C., undermining his ability to represent his constituents. This is yet another frustrating reminder of the consequences of D.C.’s lack of statehood and the tangible results the lack of statehood has on the lives and safety of DC residents,” said Pinto. “Recognizing the importance of residents of the DC Jail having a voice and advocate for their needs, the Council established a new ANC representing the DC Jail and for their elected representative to be transferred out of DC undermines this crucial representation.”