The Biggest Problem in America, According to Its Prisoners

“The New Jim Crow.” “Not enough police.” “Millennials.”

An illustration combining snapshots of handwritten responses from the survey.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Aviva Shen.

In our first-of-its-kind political survey inside prisons, Slate and the Marshall Project asked respondents three open-ended questions: What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today? How much does your race affect your political views? Have your political views changed since being incarcerated?

Respondents told us how they’ve relied on—and sometimes come to disagree with—opinions of friends or family members. One man told us, for example, that his mother read him the news over FaceTime. Some said they had become more political just by virtue of having more time to read the news—one wrote that he primarily got his news from NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. The more than 8,000 voices behind the statistics expressed nuanced and provocative thoughts on the state of the world. (We’ve identified some of the respondents below by the candidates they support in the 2020 presidential election. This survey was distributed in December, before several candidates dropped out.)

Here are some of their answers.

To hear the Marshall Project team discuss this project, listen to What Next.

Respondents take the survey.

What 8,000 Prisoners Think About American Politics

In a first-of-its-kind survey, we asked the most disenfranchised people in America who they would vote for and what matters most to them.

“I see firsthand that politics are not structured to help me.”

Drawings of faces.

How Prison Changes Your Politics

Thousands of survey respondents said incarceration has transformed their worldviews and political allegiances. Four of them told us how.

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

A collage featuring Donald Trump.

Trump’s Surprising Support Inside Prisons

Before prison, John Adkins didn’t care about politics. Now, after 23 years behind bars, he’s an ardent Republican. And he’s not alone.

“I don’t see Donald Trump as being anyone’s puppet.”

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