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Election 2020

How We Pulled Off A Groundbreaking Political Survey Behind Bars

More than 8,000 incarcerated people responded.

Back in August, an editor at Slate approached The Marshall Project with an idea: She had heard of our new print publication, News Inside, and wanted to know if we could use it to conduct a survey of incarcerated people’s political views.

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.

As much as elected officials and the 2020 presidential candidates talk about people behind bars, little is actually known about what incarcerated people think about politics. Most people in prison cannot vote, and pollsters don’t seek their opinions during election season.

But over the past two years, a number of states have made it easier for people with felony convictions to get their voting rights back once they leave prison. In county jails, it is legal for people who haven’t yet been convicted of a felony to vote. With these developments, it felt like the right moment to ask people serving time in prisons and jails about their political leanings and experiences.

So, how would we do it? Prisons are like black boxes where little information gets in and even less gets out. Surveying incarcerated people about their political views proved to be a logistical puzzle. Typical political polling organizations have the demographic data they need to make sure that they’re reaching a representative sample of people. And they can reach their prospects at home or on their cell phones. This isn’t the case for prisons. Incarcerated people can’t receive phone calls or use the internet. Only some facilities allow them access to electronic messaging services such as JPay or Corrlinks.

However, prisons and jails tend to be less restrictive about snail mail and information on prison-based digital tablets. That meant that, with circulation in 501 facilities across the country and counting, News Inside was an ideal way to reach people behind bars. We also created a digital version of the survey with help from Edovo, a Chicago-based tablet company operating in 142 correctional facilities in 25 states. Edovo provides communications systems and educational programming via tablets, at no cost to incarcerated people.

Constructing the survey

After we developed our distribution strategy, we turned our attention to writing the actual survey. Slate and Marshall Project reporters and editors brainstormed a list of questions, read dozens of traditional political opinion polls and spoke to polling experts as well as researchers who focus on incarcerated people. We also consulted with imprisoned sources to help us understand the context of political conversations within prison and shape the questions.

We designed some of our questions to mirror surveys of people outside of prison. In other cases, we specifically wrote questions to find out how imprisonment shapes political views. And we wrote a range of demographic questions so we could identify differences between groups.

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 on to our survey takers, we put a self-addressed stamped envelope in the magazine.

The responses flood in

We sent out the digital survey in December, before presidential candidates like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out, and before Mike Bloomberg jumped in. In January, we started shipping our magazines to county jails and state prisons.

It was no surprise that the digital versions came back first: Roughly 7,600 people responded. The paper surveys started trickling in soon after. 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. One enterprising person even copied the survey questions onto a blank sheet of paper, filled that out and mailed it to us. 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. We asked Marshall Project members and staffers from Slate and The Marshall Project to do the painstaking work of typing in the data. Collectively, we have entered more than 650 paper surveys by hand so far and synthesized them with the 7,600 digital responses.

Because surveys are still arriving, we decided we could not yet weight the data to build a sample that was fully representative of the overall incarcerated population. Instead of focusing on the respondents as a whole, we looked for trends across race, gender and other demographic differences to make sure the results we reported were meaningful.

Beyond the survey

To report the stories in this unique package, we scoured the surveys for interesting perspectives and opinions. If people indicated on their surveys that they welcomed contact from a reporter, we mailed them letters and waited for responses. From there, we conducted many of the interviews over prison telephone and email systems.

In total, we mailed out 30,000 copies of News Inside. More paper surveys are coming in every day. As we continue compiling the results and the general election kicks into gear, we plan to return to the respondents for their thoughts on the race unfolding on the outside.

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.

Lawrence Bartley Twitter Email is the publisher of The Marshall Project Inside, the organization’s publications intended specifically for incarcerated audiences. He is an accomplished public speaker and has provided multimedia content for CNN, PBS, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC and more. News Inside is the recipient of the 2020 Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media.

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.