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New Survey Finds Unexpected Political Opinions Among Incarcerated People

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated. And while most of them cannot vote, that doesn't mean that they are not following politics. To find out what people in prison think about today's issues, The Marshall Project and Slate did something that has never been done before - they conducted a survey across hundreds of jails and prisons across the country. And so far, they have received more than 8,000 responses. People who are incarcerated weighed in on questions about everything from their political affiliations to the minimum wage, and now The Marshall Project is ready to share some of the survey's results.

So I am joined now by two of the people working on it, Lawrence Bartley and Nicole Lewis. Welcome.

NICOLE LEWIS: Thanks for having us.

LAWRENCE BARTLEY: Thank you.

CHANG: So Lawrence, I want to start with you because I understand that you spent - what? - more than 20 years in prison. Did I get that right?

BARTLEY: Twenty-seven years and two months.

CHANG: Wow.

BARTLEY: Not that I was counting.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Well, now you are the director of News Inside, which is a print publication produced by The Marshall Project for people who are incarcerated. Tell me why you think a survey like this is important.

BARTLEY: Because people in prison are invisible. They believe that whatever they think and they say doesn't count to the public at large, yet a lot of them have turned a corner or did a 180 from who they used to be, and some of them are actually people who didn't commit crimes at all. And they just want to be invited back into society in any way, and this survey gives them an opportunity to take a part in the political process, even if it's just in terms of a survey.

CHANG: OK. And just to be clear, this was not, like, a formal scientific poll of the prison population; this was a voluntary survey. And Nicole, given that, was there anything you learned from these survey responses that surprised either of you?

LEWIS: There are several key things, one being that people in prison are not a monolith. And so often the conversation around felony disenfranchisement is framed as a partisan issue. And so conservative media and Republicans often say, oh, this will definitely support the Democrats. But we found that that doesn't seem to be the case. You know, people are - identified as Democrats, people identified as Republicans and, again, as independents. And so folks in prison are not a monolith by any means.

CHANG: How did that break down, roughly, the partisan makeup of the people who responded?

LEWIS: What we found was that the party affiliations tracked very, very closely to race. And so by and large, black respondents identified as Democrats or independents, and white respondents identified as Republicans or independents. And both groups - for both groups, independents were overrepresented or sort of more represented than in the general public.

CHANG: OK, so that's how their political affiliations broke down. But what else did you learn about their level of engagement in prison?

LEWIS: So we found that the longer people spent in prison, the more politically engaged they were. And this was not simply a function of growing older, right? So you're not just getting older in prison and becoming wiser; there was something about the experience of prison that was politicizing. And so for people who'd spent multiple decades behind bars, they said that they were more motivated to vote, spoke about politics more. They were just sort of thinking about these issues in a different way than people who'd only been in a few years.

CHANG: Oh, interesting. So the longer they were incarcerated, the more strongly they may have felt about what was going on in the wider world.

LEWIS: That's correct.

BARTLEY: Yes. And that happened to me. You know, when I was incarcerated, I was young. I was a teenager. And all I could think about is this thing that happened to me. I'm sentenced to this long sentence or my parents are disappointed or I'm in a dangerous situation. I heard rumors about prison. But as years went on, I began to realize that politicians - those are the ones that set the laws and the rules and the sentence guidelines.

CHANG: You know, hearing from people in prison now feels especially relevant. In Florida - right? - like, people convicted of felonies recently got the right to vote. But since that amendment passed, there have been efforts by Republican lawmakers to complicate their access. So what do you think people working on both sides of that issue in Florida can learn from your survey so far?

LEWIS: I think one of the most important takeaways here is that felony disenfranchisement is not simply a partisan issue; this is an issue about democracy and who gets to participate, right? These are civil rights issues. And so as of the last presidential election, there were about 6.1 million people who were barred from voting because of a felony conviction. And so when we think about the sheer scale of the number of people who are just not able to cast a ballot, we have to ask the question of what does that really mean in terms of what issues get supported by politicians, you know, what communities are reflected in the values that - you know, the level of conversation that we have.

BARTLEY: Yeah. Since Amendment 4 was passed, giving formerly incarcerated people the right to vote in Florida, there's been a lot of politicians working to do anything to stifle that. And Republicans, who are largely trying to stop people from voting in Florida, they can be lessening their own numbers because they could be Republicans who they're stopping from voting. And this is what this survey reveals.

CHANG: Lawrence Bartley is the director of News Inside, and Nicole Lewis is a staff writer with The Marshall Project. Thank you to both of you.

LEWIS: Great to be with you.

BARTLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.