What do we really know about the politics of people behind bars?

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Marshall Project

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 11 Mar 2020

Credit: Nicole Lewis, Aviva Shen, Lawrence Bartley, Anna Flagg

Project description:

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—and over 8,000 incarcerated people across the country responded. The survey was such a success that we undertook a second survey over the summer, exploring incarcerated people’s political views in more depth on the cusp of the election.

Impact reached:

The results of this project are threefold:


  • It raises important questions about the impact of felony disenfranchisement and makes clear that this should not be a partisan issue. Typically, Democrats lead the effort to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions. There is a widely held assumption that people in prison will support the Democrats. But the results of our survey show a wide spectrum of political belief behind bars, which could help temper conservative opposition to returning the vote to people with felony convictions.


  • Our survey humanizes people behind bars. We asked important questions and amplified the voices of thousands of people in prison and jail. As a result, people can see just how much humanity and human potential is locked up across the country. Perhaps the biggest impact are emails and tweets from readers who say that they’ve been moved by our project or reconsidered their assumptions about prisoners.


  • The project has provided inspiration and research material for several political scientists who study the impact of incarceration on political development. We are currently in conversation with researchers at Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, and Columbia University about further lines of inquiry. 

Techniques/technologies used:

Because of restrictions on communication into and out of correctional facilities, the incarcerated population is a uniquely difficult group to survey. We knew it would be virtually impossible to obtain a survey sample that was truly representative across demographics and geography. 


So we had to get creative; as part of the survey process we collected a range of demographics, personal information, location and facility-level data that would allow us to analyze, control for and cross-check our results across many factors. We programmatically produced and then manually inspected hundreds of sets of results for subgroups of our population, checking for consistency across groups, and confirming the differences we saw. We avoided making generalizations about the entire incarcerated population, instead focusing on more narrow, meaningful findings that we were able to rigorously confirm with this data. 


The end result was a first-of-its kind series that provided readers with nuanced, in-depth reporting of the views and voices of the incarcerated population.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Prisons are like black boxes where little information gets in and even less gets out. Incarcerated people can’t receive phone calls or use the internet, and only some facilities allow them access to electronic messaging services such as JPay or Corrlinks.


Prisons and jails are less restrictive about snail mail and information on prison-based digital tablets. News Inside — our print publication for incarcerated people — was an ideal way for us to connect our survey with people behind bars, and we also created a digital version for  Edovo, a nonprofit tablet company that we partner with 


To make taking the paper survey as easy as possible, we printed it on a perforated page that people could tear out and mail back. To avoid passing postage costs, we put a self-addressed stamped envelope in the magazine. It was no surprise that the digital versions came back first: Many people wrote additional insights on the survey itself and on loose sheets of paper. We also discovered that some participants had taken the initiative to photocopy the survey and share it with fellow prisoners who couldn’t get the magazine. We had hoped for 1,000 responses. We were surprised to receive more than 8,000.


As this unexpected number of surveys piled up, we had to come up with a plan that would allow us to analyze both the digital and paper responses. We ended up creating a Google form that mirrored the survey. Collectively, we have entered more than 650 paper surveys by hand so far and synthesized them with the 7,600 digital responses.


Due to the difficulties in obtaining a representative sample of the incarcerated population,  we ocused on looking for trends across race, gender and other demographic differences to make sure the results we reported were meaningful. 


What can others learn from this project?

We believe that we broke new ground by allowing our readers to hear directly from incarcerated people about how being imprisoned has shaped their political outlook and what political engagement looks like behind bars. We would encourage other journalists to also engaged with incarcerated people, and more broadly with justice-involved communities, and to ensure that their voices are heard and become a great part of a political conversation that has, until now, ignored them.

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