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Election 2020

What Do We Really Know About the Politics of People Behind Bars?

More than 8,000 people responded to a first-of-its-kind political survey. Here is what they said.

From left, front row, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison students Jacob Nolan, Bryon Brown and Edward Brown fill out the “News Inside” political opinion survey at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.
From left, front row, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison students Jacob Nolan, Bryon Brown and Edward Brown fill out the “News Inside” political opinion survey at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.

A simple question at a Bernie Sanders town hall last spring sparked a debate new to prime time: Should incarcerated people be allowed to vote? Sanders said yes—his home state of Vermont (and its neighbor, Maine) are the only states to give all people in prison that right. Later, Joe Biden said no.

Yet in a country awash in political polling, the views of those who are most affected remain a mystery: the 2.3 million people behind bars. Do they want to vote? If given the right, who would they vote for? What issues do they care about most? No one’s ever really asked.

The Marshall Project partnered with Slate to conduct the first-of-its-kind political survey of prisons and jails across the country. Read more about Trump's incarcerated supporters, how prison can change your political outlook, what individuals had to say and how one man became politically engaged in Louisiana’s Angola prison. Here's more on how we did it.

This is why The Marshall Project partnered with Slate to conduct the first-of-its-kind political survey inside prisons and jails across the country. Now that criminal justice is a campaign issue and many states are restoring voting rights to those convicted of felonies, we asked thousands of incarcerated people across the country for their opinions on criminal justice reform, which political party they identify with and which presidential candidate they’d support. We heard from more than 8,000 people. Here’s what we found:

Many respondents’ answers reflected the crucible of their own experiences—offering new insights into issues often discussed from a distance on a debate stage.

“I once believed in gun ownership,” wrote Helen Gately, who is incarcerated at the J. Aaron Hawkins Senior Center for Women in Arkansas. “But when I killed my abuser with a gun, I knew had there not been a gun in our house I would have never killed him. I would have never had the heart to stab him. But a gun made it impersonal, easy and quick. Now he's dead and I'm here.”

This country is still a long way from granting incarcerated people the right to vote, and polls show the idea is unpopular. But the thinking on who deserves these rights is changing. In the past two years alone, more than a dozen states reconsidered their felony disenfranchisement laws, often restoring voting rights to people on probation and parole or clarifying the rights restoration process.

The Florida primary on Tuesday will bring one of the most significant tests of this new landscape. It is the first major contest since Floridians voted in 2018 to restore the right to cast a ballot to an estimated 1.5 million people with felony convictions. Before the measure, Florida had one of the strictest disenfranchisement laws in the country, which left 1 in 10 voting age adults unable to vote. The historic measure was the greatest expansion of the franchise in decades, but it was obstructed by the Republican Legislature, which passed laws requiring payment of fines and fees before restoring rights. The partisan legal battle is ongoing. However, our survey suggests that granting the right to vote to those currently or formerly incarcerated may not overwhelmingly benefit one party over the other.

Overall, the survey responses reflect a diverse and often contradictory set of beliefs from people who, should they ever get the right to vote, cannot be seen as a single bloc. While some disdain politics, more respondents say they now see the ballot as a way to advocate for their interests.

“Before coming to prison I really did not think it was all that important to vote or even care what was going on in the government,” wrote Antonio Ayers, who is incarcerated in Arkansas. “But now that I have time to sit back and watch what goes on, I know that as a citizen it is very important to let what I want to be known by the people in charge.”

To reach people whose access to the outside world is severely limited, we inserted a survey into The Marshall Project’s print publication, News Inside. This magazine is distributed in more than 500 prisons and jails across the country (prisons house people convicted of felonies, while jails house those awaiting trial or who were convicted of misdemeanors). As more results come in and the general election kicks into gear, we plan to return to respondents for their thoughts.

Roughly half of the 8,266 respondents identified as people of color or mixed-race, with 20 percent identifying as black, 14 percent as Latino, 17 percent as Native American and 19 percent as Asian or other races. The remaining 41 percent identified as white alone, and 8 percent did not give any race information. (The numbers exceed 100 percent because mixed-race respondents could select multiple races).

Most have completed high school and are between 26 and 45 years old. Eighty-five percent are men, 14 percent are women and 2 percent are gender non-conforming. Sixteen percent have not been convicted and are awaiting court dates in a county jail, or did not know whether they had been sentenced or not. Most of the rest will spend anywhere from five to more than 21 years in prison.

Our survey is intended to be a snapshot of politics behind bars, but it has limitations. Since this was a voluntary survey, it’s important to keep in mind that responses are coming from a self-selecting group of people who may already be politically engaged and following the news.

Respondents skewed whiter than the overall prison population, and were disproportionately incarcerated in red states. State prisons hold a disproportionate number of black and Latino people. (Thirty-three percent of state prisoners are black, while black people make up 13 percent of the United States population, for example.) As a result, the survey is not representative of the overall prison population. So instead of focusing solely on the respondents as a whole, we looked for trends across race, gender, party affiliation, and other demographic categories to ensure our reported results were meaningful. We also surfaced as many individual voices and opinions as possible.

Which Candidates Do They Back?

Just like the country, respondents were divided. Forty-five percent of white respondents said they’d support Trump for president, with white men showing the strongest support. That undermines conventional wisdom: Conservative media and politicians often regard incarcerated people as potential Democrats, citing research into the voting habits of formerly incarcerated people. About 30 percent of white respondents chose a Democratic candidate, while 25 percent said they would not vote or did not know which candidate to back.

For people of color, no single candidate prevailed, but 20 percent of black respondents chose Biden as their top choice, with Sanders coming in second at 16 percent. Almost a third of respondents of color said that they didn’t know who they would vote for, or they wouldn’t vote at all. The survey was distributed in December, before several candidates dropped out.

Regardless of who they’d vote for or which party they back, the majority of respondents had little faith in elected officials. More than 80 percent do not believe politicians are generally acting in their interest. This disenchantment crosses racial lines.

“I grew up being told in history class and school that politicians could be trusted to do what is best for the working class and poor, and overall for the country, only to get older and realize the corruption in both major political parties,” wrote Allan Martin, a white man who is incarcerated in Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Despite the widespread disillusionment, many respondents described how their time behind bars led them to become more politically engaged and shaped their views.

Those who identified as Democrats or Republicans each believed their own party was most committed to criminal justice reform. Several respondents applauded Trump’s support for the bipartisan First Step Act, which reduces the length of some automatic federal prison sentences, gives federal judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and retroactively reduces prison sentences for people convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses before 2010.

Marselia Smith, who is incarcerated in Florida's Calhoun Correctional Institution, voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary and considers himself on the opposite side of the political spectrum than Trump. But even he credits the president with signing the First Step Act. “What the federal government does, eventually, the states follow,” he wrote.

Race and Incarceration

For black respondents in particular, issues of race loom large. Two out of 3 black respondents said that their race informs their political beliefs, and black people, more than any other group, say prison has increased their motivation to vote. By contrast, almost half of white respondents said race does not matter at all when it comes to politics.

Many black respondents pointed to racism in society at large, and racism embedded in the criminal justice system, to explain why their political views are intertwined with their race.

“Being a black man from the inner city, I see firsthand that the politics are not structured to help me,” wrote David Young, who is incarcerated in Lansing Correctional Facility, in Lansing, Kansas. “When laws are passed to take funds away from education and put into prisons. When I can look at a flawed system that targets young black males instead of helping them.”

Inside / Outside

Our results show some intriguing contrasts between the perspectives of those inside prisons and jails and those outside. Most of those who identified as Republicans in our survey oppose an assault weapons ban (unlike Republicans outside prison, who do support such a ban).

Notably, incarcerated Republicans embraced some policies usually labeled as liberal. Three-quarters of Republican prisoners supported a minimum wage hike and marijuana legalization. That’s far higher than the 55 percent of Republican voters in favor of marijuana legalization, or the 43 percent who back a minimum wage increase.

The support for a higher minimum wage is likely a reflection of incarcerated people’s economic realities. Poor people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and although many people work while incarcerated, they usually receive far less than the minimum wage. In the general electorate, lower-income Republicans are more likely to back a minimum wage increase than their higher-earning Republican peers.

“Our economy is the most important thing I worry about. No one should be homeless, or jobless, unless they choose to be,” wrote Jimmy Tyrrell, who identifies as a Republican and is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida. “We need to do more to help our own impoverished citizens.”

In contrast to Republicans behind bars, incarcerated Democrats expressed views that are closer to those of their counterparts outside prison. Democrats inside prison often supported tighter border security, and strongly backed marijuana legalization and increasing the minimum wage. However, a bare majority support an assault weapons ban, far lower than the 88 percent of Democrats outside prison. Republicans and Democrats inside prison are still far apart on issues like gun control and immigration.

As they do on the outside, most white respondents identified as Republicans or independents, while most black respondents said they were Democrats or independents. Survey respondents were more likely to identify as independents than the U.S. population overall.

Voting Rights

The results suggest that many incarcerated people are still interested in politics despite being temporarily (or in some cases permanently) stripped of their right to vote. Many said they get their news by watching local TV stations or cable news and said they discuss politics with family or friends occasionally (as opposed to very frequently, frequently, rarely, or never).

However they differ politically, there is one issue most agree on: 76 percent supported restoring voting rights to currently incarcerated people regardless of their crime. (People in jail who have not been convicted can still vote.)

Should the respondents ever get their way, that could be a huge shift in the American electorate. As of the most recent presidential election, roughly 6.1 million Americans, both in and out of prison, could not vote because of a felony conviction. Their exclusion has lasting repercussions for American democracy, says Christopher Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author of “Locked Out,” which examines the consequences of the nation’s felony disenfranchisement laws.

The needs of the disenfranchised are often not considered by elected officials—so they have no leverage to push candidates to back issues they care about like free education, restoring federal Pell Grants that pay for a college education in prison or reducing long sentences. The exclusion is especially acute for black and low-income people, who are disproportionately swept up into the criminal justice system.

Reintegrating the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated into politics won’t be easy. Once released, they often struggle to find jobs and stable housing. Many also face legal and bureaucratic obstacles to getting their rights back, such as repaying court-ordered fines and fees. Given such obstacles, voting tends to fall low on the list of priorities.

But while a majority of respondents said they’d never voted before, half said incarceration has increased their motivation to vote. Only 12 percent said their desire to vote has decreased.

Many said that watching the news for the first time, becoming sober, talking to their cellmates, receiving an education or simply growing older had increased their political awareness. Many explained how their political beliefs are inextricably bound up with their desire to get their lives back on track.

“I know I have an uphill battle to get my time back,” wrote Jamil Houston, who is incarcerated in Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka, Florida. “I know that I have basically NO rights at all and have been reduced to a second class citizen upon my release. But I have a two-year-old daughter that I must be there for, and I will not give up my fight for justice.”

Special thanks to John Dukes, Edovo and Marshall Project members for helping with this project.

Additional data entry by Karla Arroyo, Kayla Boone, Francis Difiore, Allison Dikanovic, Madeline Faber, Terrence Fraser, Cecily Hughes, Skanda Kadirgamar, Victoria Mba-Jonas, Zinhle Ngema, Michaela Roman, Jacob Wasserman and Rawan Yaghi

Nicole Lewis Twitter Email is the engagement editor for The Marshall Project, leading the organization’s strategic efforts to deepen reporting that reaches communities most affected by the criminal legal system.

Anna Flagg Twitter Email is The Marshall Project's senior data reporter, covering criminal justice topics including immigration, crime, race, policing and incarceration. Her work has been recognized by the Global Editors Network’s Data Journalism Awards, the Society of News Design and the Information is Beautiful Awards, and she was a finalist for a 2019 Deadline Club Award.