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Election 2020

For Those Serving Long Sentences, Politics is a Lifeline

Respondents who’ve spent decades behind bars were more politically engaged than their peers, but they’re also the most cynical.

When Pedro Santiago was arrested in 2003, he didn’t know how to read or write. He was 30 at the time and had been selling drugs for two decades, first in New York and then in Maine, where, in 2005, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

It was while he was waiting for his trial that he says his bunkmate sat him down and told him that he needed to learn to read so that he could understand evidence about his case unearthed during the discovery process. While he was in the county jail, a volunteer came in weekly to teach him.

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, what individuals had to say and how one man became politically engaged in Louisiana’s Angola prison. Here's more on how we did it.

“It was an awakening,” Santiago, 46, said in a phone interview. “That got me interested in politics.” But he says that when he was transferred to state prison after his conviction, he ran afoul of prison rules. His behavior led him to be classified as a security threat, and he was consigned to solitary confinement for about two years. In solitary, he realized he had a choice to make.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can go home when I’m 65 or I can die here.’ That was eye-opening for me.”

That turning point led Santiago to politics as an antidote to despair. When he got out of solitary, he focused on his education, and in 2015 he passed a high school equivalency test. Though he entered prison as a registered Republican, his views changed as he spent more time watching the way coverage differed between news stations like MSNBC, Fox News and CNN: “They all want us to believe a certain thing.”

As he learned more about what he describes as a corrupt system, his motivation to participate in politics increased.

Maine is one of two states that allow all people who are incarcerated to vote (although few exercise that right, often because of low literacy rates and little access to information). Still, Santiago credits his ability to vote from prison as galvanizing, along with Barack Obama’s historic candidacy in 2008.

“[Obama] coming from a broken home, single mother, and all that, made me realize in a way that you make your own destiny…To see the first black president up there was a tearjerker for me,” said Santiago, who is Puerto Rican.

Santiago now identifies as an independent and voted against Donald Trump in 2016. And though he said he would love to see the first female president, he currently supports Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I love all his talking points,” he said. “I believe that this man could make things happen like taxing the rich and Medicare for all.”

Political arguments in prison, he said, can get heated. He remembered tensions escalating after Trump’s comments following the death of a protester during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. But Santiago also says moments like that are proof that “we do care about what’s happening out in the real world. It does affect us. It affects us all.”

Spending decades in prison could easily result in a total withdrawal from politics. But in a first-of-its-kind survey, The Marshall Project and Slate found that people who have spent more years behind bars are more politically aware than their peers who’ve been incarcerated for less than a year. Respondents with long sentences were more motivated to vote, more likely to change their political views, and more likely to discuss politics than those who had spent less time in prison.

For many, prison is more regimented than the lives they left behind. Others become sober for the first time and use their newfound clarity to follow the news or get an education.

In particular, for people sentenced to life in prison, the interest in politics is pragmatic. Often, legislative changes to their state’s criminal code are their only hope for release. Incarcerated people in most states can’t vote, so they can’t elect officials willing to grant some prisoners a “second look” or to restore parole. Instead, they write op-eds, mail letters to legislators or advocacy organizations and encourage their family and friends to vote on their behalf.

Yet if those in our survey who’d spent more time in prison tended to be more politically engaged, they were also most cynical about politicians’ commitment to criminal justice reform.

Roughly 30 percent of respondents have spent 21 years or more in prison. While this survey is, to date, the best account of their political opinions, it has some limitations.The survey was voluntary and may represent a self-selecting group of people who are already politically engaged and following the news. As such, it is not a fully representative sample of the overall incarcerated population and may not reflect the views of people whose long sentences have deepened their alienation and who declined to respond.

Here are the stories of three other survey respondents who have spent long stretches behind bars.

Joseph Badagliacca, 43, Florida

In his darkest moments last year, Joseph Badagliacca battled thoughts of suicide. He had served more than two decades of his life sentence for murder—with no hope of getting out because there is no parole in Florida.

“I may never have the opportunity at a real life out there,” he wrote. “I understand most people would say that my victim never got a chance to complete his life because of my involvement. There are times I agree and wonder if I deserve to get out, or to even live right now.”

Struggling with the prospect of growing old and dying behind bars, Badagliacca found purpose in politics. He’s contributed to a campaign to create a path to reentry for the incarcerated who have demonstrated they’ve truly changed.

“I've lost everyone except my mom as a result of my incarceration and just like anyone else, I don't want to die alone in here. So … I fight,” he wrote.

Badagliacca entered prison at 20. “It was surreal,” he wrote, recalling his initial shock. “It was like I was in a dream with everything moving outside of myself.”

Over his 23 years in prison, he’s learned to speak Spanish while incarcerated, earned a paralegal certification and is working on his bachelor’s degree. He says the focus on self-improvement is common for those facing long terms. “Emotionally, spiritually, morally, educationally, physically … we are more focused on the things that matter,” he wrote.

Demonstrating rehabilitation has political value, too. The Florida Legislature is working to fix the state’s overcrowded and expensive prison system, but several reform bills have not gotten much traction. He understands the lawmakers’ hesitance. With nearly 100,000 people in prison in Florida, many aren’t getting the programming they need to be productive on the outside. Badagliacca says lawmakers are scared to risk letting some violent offenders out for fear they’d commit new crimes.

“It’s political suicide,” he wrote.

The public may be cynical about criminal justice reform, he says, but he suspects that attitude stems from misinformation and a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of prison.

“We were removed from society AS punishment,” he wrote. “Mistakenly, a lot of people (including some of the officers in here) believe we are here FOR punishment. Some of us are really just regular guys who are defined by the worst mistakes of our lives instead of our innumerable contributions. We want to be better, show others we're better and, of course, convince the lawmakers we're better.”

Vegas Walker, 25, Kansas

As a kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Vegas Walker says she was exposed to prostitution, guns and drugs at an early age. By the time she was 11, she started smoking weed and hanging out in the streets. By 13, Walker says she was in and out of jail.

Life at home was chaotic. Her mother went to jail when she was 5 years old, and her father was rarely around, forcing Walker to stay with her alcoholic grandmother for several years. Walker says she remembers going to school dirty because her grandmother couldn’t look after her.

Nonetheless, she’s grateful her grandmother insisted that Walker get a high school diploma.

“As much as I couldn’t stand my grandma, she had five kids by the age of 18 and still managed to graduate from high school,” wrote Walker, who is black and serving time in Topeka Correctional Facility. “And that’s all she wanted from us. That’s the only thing I managed to do correctly.”

In the chaotic years before Walker went to prison for stabbing an ex-boyfriend during an argument, she says she didn’t pay much attention to the news or politics. She was absorbed in selling drugs and trying to stay alive as a woman in an arena typically dominated by men.

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“It's hard on the streets for anyone, but for a woman it is ten times harder,” Walker wrote. “We are viewed as an easy target. I had to fight harder and be 10 times more scandalous than the next person or I would have been eaten alive out there.”

It wasn’t until she landed in prison that Walker says she first started thinking about how politics shapes people’s lives. Walker says many of her political views are shaped by the unfairness of the criminal justice system. She believes prisons in Kansas are designed for people to fail and return. Practices like stop and frisk, she says, allow police to harass innocent black and brown people. And when a judge sentenced Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean in his own home, to a relatively short 10 years in prison, Walker says, it felt “like there are two sets of rules for people of color and white people.”

Walker is set to be released next March. As that day approaches, she’s started to worry about how she will make a living with only a high school diploma. There aren’t many opportunities for education or skill-building in women’s prisons, she says. Walker says she is drawn to Bernie Sanders because of his focus on improving poor people’s lives. But even if he wins, she isn’t sure it will make a difference.

“I do believe that it's important to vote and have a say,” she wrote. “But I don't really believe that candidates can actually make half the things they say come true.”

Samuel Byrd, 46, Florida

Samuel Byrd says some of his friends in prison have told him he’s too conservative to be black.

He doesn’t support illegal immigration, aid to foreign countries or financing an extravagant lifestyle with credit cards. He does believe in marriage before children, college education and keeping dollars on American soil. He admires the conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh too, although Byrd does not identify as Republican.

His political convictions have strengthened during his nine years in Okeechobee Correctional Institution in Okeechobee, Florida. He says he’s surrounded by people who “only know what they learned in the streets, on the block or at the trap,” and that most barely finished high school and aren’t interested in bettering themselves. Byrd, by contrast, has a few years of college under his belt. Listening to others blame “the system” for their problems has pushed him further to the right.

“There are very few inmates who I can hold a serious conversation with that don’t involve committing felonies or sports,” Byrd wrote. “Politics, even the ones that directly affect them, are not a major topic. Most blacks hate Trump but can't tell you why. Most whites think he's doing a better job than Obama but can't tell you how. Both groups defend their positions by simply misquoting what they heard somewhere.”

Before prison, Byrd says he spent his time “being a broke playboy,” spending his money on strippers and romancing other men’s wives. In 2010, he was charged with attempted murder and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Now Byrd works in the law library helping others with their cases. He prefers to focus on people with short sentences, pushing “them to admit to what stupid way of thinking landed them in prison” and encouraging them to think about “what are they willing to change and give up once released.”

Byrd can’t vote, but he says he would choose Michael Bloomberg to oppose Trump “because he, like Trump, is a billionaire businessman.” (The survey was distributed in December, before Bloomberg dropped out). Byrd isn’t persuaded by the promises made by progressive candidates like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He believes that education is key to a productive life, but he doesn’t support free college education.

Instead, Byrd is in favor of personal responsibility, not government assistance, even when it comes to keeping people out of prison.

“This country was built by those who climbed the ladder of success that the forefathers erected, not by those waiting for someone to throw them a rope,” he wrote. “I believe that we should focus on increased education not reducing mass incarceration. I want to see prevention through education, not treatment by the government.”

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.

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.