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Survey of 8,000 Prisoners’ Political Views Finds Surprising Results

They reported that:

• A plurality of white respondents back President Trump, undercutting claims that people in prison would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

• Long stretches in prison appear to be more politicizing: The more time respondents spend in prison, the more motivated they are to vote and to discuss politics.

• Perspectives change inside prison. Republicans behind bars back policies like legalizing marijuana that are less popular with GOP voters on the outside; Democrats inside prison are less enthusiastic about assault weapons bans than Democrats at large.

• Political views diverged by race. Black respondents are the only group pointing to reducing racial bias in criminal justice as a top concern; almost every other group picked reducing the prison population as a key priority.

The survey was inserted into The Marshall Project’s print publication, News Inside. It is distributed to more than 500 prisons and jails in the United States. The respondents racially identified themselves as: White 41%, Black 20%, Latino 14%, Native American 17%, Asian or other races 19%, and 8% did not provide information. Because respondents could choose more than one race, the total percentage exceeds 100%. Among the respondents, 57% said they had never cast a vote.

Since the respondents were self-selecting, they are likely to be politically engaged and following the news. The survey takers, therefore, warned that the results have limitations. The responses were gleaned for “trends across race, gender, party affiliation, and other demographic categories to ensure our reported results were meaningful,” Slate wrote. “We also surfaced as many individual voices and opinions as possible.”

The survey was distributed in March 2020. Of White respondents, 36% identified as Republicans, 30% Independent, and 18% Democrats. Only 11% of Black respondents identified as Republicans, while 29% identified as Independent and 45% as Democrats.

Their candidate choice contrasted with conventional wisdom. “For people of color, no single candidate prevailed, but 20 percent of black respondents chose Biden as their top choice, with Sanders coming in at second with 16 percent,” Slate wrote. “Forty five percent of white respondents said they’d support Trump for president … 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.”

Prisoners have little faith in politicians, with 80% saying they don’t act in their interests. “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,” said Michigan prisoner Allen Martin, who is White.

Issues of race are huge for Blacks prisoners. “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,” Slate reported. “By contrast, almost half of white respondents said race does not matter at all when it comes to politics.”

“Being a black man from the inner city, I see first-hand that the politics are not structured to help me,” said Kansas prisoner David Young. “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.”

The survey also found that 75% of Republican prisoners supported a minimum wage hike and 76% supported marijuana legalization, which contrasts with the 43% and 55% support, respectively, for Republicans at large. Another contrast with their identified party is that 44% of Democratic prisoners supported tighter border security while only 30% opposed such tightening; 92% supported a minimum wage hike; and 84% supported marijuana legalization.

Prisoners of both parties have differing views on an assault weapons ban than their identified party. Support for such a ban is favored by 88% of at-large Democrats but Democratic prisoners support it by only 52%. The survey found only 30% of Republican prisoners support a ban, but Republicans on the outside overwhelmingly support one.

Many respondents said prison had changed their view of politics. Before prison, John Adkins, 43, said he never paid attention to politics, focusing instead on gang violence in southwest Detroit. In prison, he watched the news and grew tired of “the demonization of straight, white, Christian men on CNN and MSNBC and just about all mainstream media,” he wrote.

Adkins started watching conservative shows, and the host’s views against abortion and gay marriage won him over. “I am so tired of the double-standard of the left in the country,” he wrote. “Their rhetoric is what is divisive in this country, not Donald J. Trump’s!”

For Kansas, prisoner Christopher Shelton-Jenkins, 27, his cellmate, who he considered “very intelligent” and respected, “broke some things down to me . . . That’s when I realized I had wrong and ignorant impressions.”

“I remember he talked about the Democrat and Republican stances on the wall on the border - that Democrats wanted to be all open arms, which was nice, but the Republicans thought it was just not practical in terms of managing our economy and social systems,” wrote Shelton-Jenkins, whose mother is White and father is Black. He loosely associated with Democrats before prison, “only because my mom labeled all Republicans racists who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.”

Six years in prison changed that view. “A lot of incarcerated, poor, and black people identify as Democrat because we’re told that Republicans want to keep us poor and incarcerated,” wrote Shelton-Jenkins. “But now I believe the opposite: that Democrats want to keep us spoon-fed by the government and Republicans want to wean us off.”

Arkansas prisoner William Robinson, 39, a Black man, pointed to the contrasts with the punitive crime bill President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 with the Republican push for the First Step Act and Trump’s expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grant program, an Obama-era initiative. He also pointed to the commutation of Alice Johnson’s life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime.

“These things matter . . . Politicians talk about criminal justice reform. President Trump got it done,” Robinson wrote. “I really can’t tell you anything that the Democrats have done in recent years, as far as criminal justice reform is concerned, that has had an impact comparable to President Trump passing these new laws.”

Kansas prisoner Derek Bedford, 46, also had an epiphany on politics while doing time. “I was thinking that Obama was gonna do some positive things for the country, and he turned out to be a puppet for big business and for the rich,” he said. “I don’t see Donald Trump as being anyone’s puppet. From what I’ve been seeing and hearing, he’s given businesses some tax cuts for bringing back jobs, so that’s helping small people in this country.”

The survey makes clear that conventional wisdom needs to be readjusted when it comes to convicts and ex-cons’ political views. Thousands of prisoners said “incarceration has transformed their worldviews and political allegiances,” Slate reported. A follow-up will be conducted with the respondents as the 2020 political season heats up.