2020 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

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

About the Project

There are 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails who are directly affected by the outcome of our elections—but until now, their political opinions have been largely ignored. In early 2020 The Marshall Project partnered with Slate to conduct a first-of-its-kind political survey of people behind bars. Over 8,000 incarcerated people across the country replied, and we continue to receive new responses every day.

Getting information in and out of prisons is extremely difficult. But The Marshall Project had already created an excellent tool for gauging the political landscape in our prisons and jails: News Inside, a print publication we designed for incarcerated readers that circulates in over 500 correctional facilities across the country. Last August, an editor at Slate approached us with the idea of using News Inside to conduct a survey of incarcerated people’s political views. We reached out to polling experts, political scientists, and our incarcerated sources, as well as consulting political opinion polls of the general electorate. We came up with a list of questions that would let us understand how people’s political views in prison compared to those of people on the outside and explore how incarceration itself shapes people’s politics.

Our findings were published in a series of stories in both The Marshall Project and Slate, and our reporters also appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. Highlights from our analysis include:

  • Despite the popular notion that people in prison are overwhelmingly Democrats, the majority of white respondents in our survey identified as Republicans or independents—and a plurality, if given the chance to vote, would cast their ballots for President Donald Trump.
  • People who have spent long stretches in prison are more likely to have changed political views, more motivated to vote and discuss politics more frequently with friends than those who have spent less time behind bars. They were also the most cynical about politicians’ commitment to improving the criminal justice system.
  • Black people, more than any other group, say prison has increased their motivation to vote. They were the only group that most frequently cited reducing racial bias in the criminal justice system as a top concern; for almost every other group, it was reducing the prison population.

As much as the top-line survey results, we believe the extensive comments we published from incarcerated people were revelatory, showing them to have nuanced, thoughtful and passionate political views. We included multiple excerpts from a wide range of people—varied by race, ethnicity, age, gender and geography—to give humanity and depth to people who are often caricatured or stereotyped.

We are proud to nominate our partnership with Slate for the ONA award for explanatory reporting as a ground-breaking survey that allowed our readers to hear directly from incarcerated people about how being imprisoned has shaped their political outlook, how they learn about what’s happening in the political arena, and what political engagement looks like behind bars.