Florida Update from The Inside: Election Night in Prison
The idea that the 2020 Presidential Election is of importance to a person in prison is probably an absurd thought to most of the general public. Nothing is further from the truth. Politics are debated daily amongst prisoners, and the outcome of elections are highly anticipated.
That, at least, is my personal experience, especially in recent years. Maybe I’ve just become more interested in political issues. While my political awareness has heightened as I’ve gotten older and realize its importance, I believe it is fair to say that more prisoners have paid attention to politics since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
One thing I do know is a fact: President Trump has been a polarizing figure and the mainstream media’s coverage of his administration has caused people on all sides of the political spectrum to have strong feelings. Every night, my fellow prisoners flock to the day room to watch the nightly news and to stay abreast of the newest events.
As the 2020 election cycle heated up, so did the emotions and rhetoric amongst prisoners. While I speak in general terms here, keep in mind that these are my personal observations and experiences while at Sumter Correctional Institution in Florida. Other prisons may not be as engaged, but over the course of my 32-year prison experience, the nightly news has been a staple of the day rooms of every prison that I’ve served time within. The only change to that has been the network of preference.
As 6 p.m. rolls around, some prisoners say it is time to get their dose of nightly propaganda. Others refer to it as fake news time, a few look forward to Trump bashing hour, and others remain silent so they can avoid confrontation. I know of some prisoners who spend their day listening to conservative radio. Either way you look at it, politics is vibrantly alive within prison.
Emotions about politics, like in the free world, are strong. In early October, a friend and I were sitting at a table talking about Trump. Another prisoner who walked to the adjacent table, overheard us, and interjected himself into the conversation. When it started to take a turn he did not agree with, he got upset and told us not to talk politics with him. It got to the point where he was ready to take it to a violent level. We moved on.
The next day, he apologized for interrupting our conversation. I’ve witnessed similar heated situations as prisoners take opposing views while watching the news. For the most part, though, discourse is civil, and “we agree to disagree” is a common resolution. Nonetheless, it is obvious partisan lines were drawn among Donald Trump and Joe Biden supporters.
Like most Americans, prisoners tired of the constant onslaught of political ads as the election season wore on. The two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate were anticipated television events that proved to be comical at times. They provided fodder for conversation in the ensuing days.
One prisoner is a political activist. He regularly engaged staff in conversation on political issues to see where they stood and to tell them they needed to vote. It became clear to him that the vast majority of guards are pro-Trump and that they intended to vote.
Election Night was another of those anticipated television events. The day room was full as prisoners watched election returns and rooted for their candidate. Like most Americans, they were disappointed to see that a result would not be clear on Tuesday and that a decision might take days.
When the morning, noon, and evening news came on in those days before, the result seemed clear: Prisoners flocked to the day room to get an update. As they came in from their job assignments, they’d ask, “What’s the latest?”
Why would prisoners care so much about politics? For some, it gives them something to focus upon other than imprisonment. Call it an escape for the mind. Others realize politics are important to the direction of the country and the atmosphere they will face upon release or that the outcome impacts the circumstances their loved ones face.
So, what are the political leanings of prisoners and which presidential candidate did they support? There was a large swath that was anti-Trump. Many didn’t really support Biden because they know he was instrumental in implementing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which deemed them “predators” and spearheaded 85% sentences. They also know he supported the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which has made challenging prison conditions and criminal convictions, respectively, in federal court a much more difficult task.
While they may not have liked Biden, they were annoyed with Trump’s comments and narcissistic behavior. Others supported the Democratic platform to abolish private prisons and a hope for further criminal justice review.
It is my opinion that there were more Trump supporters than Biden supporters. For many, it was the Democratic Party’s socialist leanings that was a main motivator. “I live in a socialist environment in prison,” said the prisoner-political activist. “Why would I want my family to be subjected to that in the free world?” Others approved of Trump’s achievements.
Some prisoners advocated for Republicans on the national level but Democrats in the Florida Legislature. They note that entrenched Republicans have blocked all criminal justice reform in Florida, and they want to see a change in leadership to allow Democrats to ease up on mass incarceration policies in the state.
Political views in prison are not what many politicians fear or free persons perceive. Prisoners are often more informed on the issues than most free persons. They have both the time to become informed and realize the importance of taking a stand. Freedom can be lost in a generation or in a moment from a bad decision.