Dr. Jay Borchert is Co-Founder and Director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, a rapidly expanding, national network of people who survived mass incarceration, and then – despite long odds against their success – went on to earn college degrees. FICGN works to make the public aware of the vast contributions its members make to community and society. FICGN also advocates for changes in law and policy that a) expand access to higher education b) end mass incarceration, and, c) make it easier for people with criminal convictions to find work, participate in civil society, and lead fulfilled lives. 

After his release from prison in 2006, Dr. Borchert earned a BA in Sociology summa cum laude  from DePaul University (‘10), followed by an MA (‘12) and PhD (’16) each in Sociology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Dr. Borchert believes that the key to ending mass incarceration (and a host of other social ills rooted in power and violence) must start with changing our core beliefs about punishment as we seem to believe that punishment is a categorical imperative, as well as our right, a human right, to apply to others. When thinking holistically, ecologically, the only imperative, and the we have when dealing with wrongdoing or transgression, is to do no further harm to anyone. It is instead our human right to facilitate healing, growth, restoration and peace. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me more about your experience with the justice system. 

It is ongoing. First as an incarcerated person, and now as a prisons researcher, and an advocate for prisoners and as an agent for change the experience spans 30 years of my life – there is a lot to unpack. 

Before we jump in, I want to thank the Michelson 20mm Foundation, and you of course, for having me and for taking the time to bring perspectives to bear on our criminal justice system that convey the complex realities of mass incarceration, a major social catastrophe really, and our urgent need to not only abolish it, but to conceive of and implement a new way to address wrongdoing and transgression in our social institutions and society. 

Our system has such a long, troubling history in both orthodoxy and praxis. And there is so much to tackle, but overall, the totality of my experience leads me to two main positions. The first is that prison culture is American culture. It is a highly-concentrated dose of American culture, government, politics, economics, and history that magnifies and spotlights our core issues. The setting and the events can seem primal, barbaric, unique, or extreme so we tend to isolate those events and the daily activities around them into something we call “prison culture.” Yet, it is not a separate culture it is a subculture, a part of our regular way of living in this country. Race, poverty and social inequality, educational inequality, homophobia, transphobia, violence, lack of access to quality healthcare, including mental healthcare, and the spike in the elderly population straining resources are all big issues in prison. Not surprisingly, they are all big issues in society at large. If we want to know what is wrong with this country, what is not working, take a quick look at prisons nationwide and you will find the answers. Aside from acting as diagnostic petri dishes, prisons are of scant utility or benefit to anyone aside from those who profit from the steady exploitation of vulnerable populations to the service of toxic capitalism, including the towns that have made a steady flow of prisoners their lifeblood.

My experience has come from my understanding of prisons as being part of us and thus rooted in the social forces and problems of society at large. It is no accident that mass incarceration and our journey to extreme inequality happened simultaneously. During these, roughly, 40 years of Wall Street and corporate driven politics, our collective understandings of what a healthy, well-functioning society looks like have been dramatically transformed. We went from espousing deeply-held beliefs in equality (despite our many social problems) to a society that believes in inequality. We not only believe in it, but we have faith in the way society is stratified too.  What do I mean when I say that? I mean that practically all tools and producers of inequality remain active and that more ways to produce even greater inequality are developed, introduced and brought in to daily use regularly. A partial list: police remain virtually unaccountable and relatively free to violate every manner of law and civil rights. corporate welfare and welfare for the richest Americans has become the norm, devastating cash bail systems, underfunded public defenders, media complicity and racial bias, including varying descriptives for white suspects and suspects of color, all matter of NIMBY (not in my backyard) facilities and industries still somehow land in low income communities, usually of color, public education remains unequal and stratified by community property tax levels, nonexistent universal health care, health disparities, gender wage gaps, unequal access to mortgages and home ownership, new forms of red-lining worse than the old skool version prior to the Fair Housing Act, schools are once again heavily segregated ad nauseam.

All of these are part of the inequality machine as they each promote inequality and stratify society. And because extreme inequality is the status quo, we also accept its tools including the violence, exclusion, and punishment needed to maintain extreme inequality. It is our belief, our full faith, in inequality that paved the way for a social catastrophe like mass incarceration. That belief is what we must change in order to get to the next level. 

We can think of the 1994 Crime Bill as a case study which demonstrates that inequality as a core belief in society. The bill masterfully distilled or constructed a belief among Americans that incarcerated people are not worthy of higher education resources. Notably, the bill did not make clear that for decades to come, prisoners who were more than willing to bring a new attitude and commitment to leading healthy productive lives would not be able to build upon that motivation while incarcerated. Nor did it make clear that communities would be receiving parolees and probationers who pose greater risk because pathways to successful reentry had been narrowed with the removal of the Pell Grant. The Bill also made if more difficult for the formerly incarcerated to gain admission to college and to access financial aid while in attendance. 

Years later, this dedication to inequality, this designation of unworthiness has left a wide, yet completely avoidable and unnecessary swath of destruction through communities hit hardest by mass incarceration. The mark of a criminal record blocking college admission, the difficulty in accessing financial aid while in college, but most significantly, the absence of college from prisons, has left countless thousands of our fellow human beings, our neighbors, to disappointing, unproductive, lives. The bill did so much damage because we were so dedicated to violence, punishment, exclusion, and inequality within it. Each little part of the bill and its processes seemed to make sense, but looking at the bill holistically, we see that the bill was an inequality machine – it simply made more inequality. 

When we continue to produce inequality, and continue to see inequality grow, it must mean that we believe in it and have faith in its processes. So the criminal justice system speaks to me as an integral part of our massive inequality machine. Even with some of the outcry about mass incarceration, overall we still have a landscape of extreme punishment that demonstrates full faith in the processes – ways, means, and rationale we use to legitimize the harms of imprisonment, which include increasing levels of inequality in society. We use inequality to guide placement of people into criminal justice categories. We know that poor defendants of color receive harsher sentences which increase inequality. Sentencing disparity by race and income (proxies for social location)  is the criminal justice norm When we use social location as a guide or tool to determine sentencing, we exhibit full faith in the accuracy of our stratification processes, and we are not just saying that inequality is an accurate proxy for character, moral worth, and criminal culpability we are saying that your social location is your moral worth and your legal standing.   

How has postsecondary education changed your perspective on the criminal justice system?

Well, when I learned what critical scholarship was I quickly determined that we needed much more of it. But we really need much more public scholarship as well. We have to remember that Mass Incarceration did not happen without academics and policy leaders to guide its development. Smart people can do a lot of things that are very poorly considered, as well as engage in very well thought out discussions, and still make what look now like horrifically stupid choices. I don’t mean to imply evil intent, racism within individuals, or base stupidity to people who made decisions that helped mass incarceration along. I simply mean to remind myself, and hopefully some others, to bring a critical analytic to any topic that even barely brushes upon criminal justice in our country. We must exercise extreme prudence here because our history shows that we routinely locate punishment in the lives of the poor, LGBT people, and people of color. I am reminding myself to take the time to engage due diligence to ensure the centrality of human dignity, rights, and the law in all criminal justice related discussions.

In a recent interview you discussed “changing boundaries”: a shift in viewing prisoners as people deserving punishment to people deserving resources. Can you talk about that shift, and what is involved?

That thinking is borne from Michele Lamont’s book Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality. She shows us that there are powerful boundary systems at work in our lives apart from the official borders between countries, states, and property lines. Individual and group characteristics such as gender, race, income, zip code, education level, sexuality can be used as symbols or signs of social status that affirm or deny rights and privileges. For example, we can see with the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts how gender has been used as a symbol of eligibility for membership for both organizations. And people have believed in gender as a symbol for eons.Thus, boundaries are built and reinforced by the faith people have in these symbols to accurately define and maintain borders or boundaries. Symbolic boundaries change when people lose faith in the ability of symbols to maintain organizational mission, values, and goals. 

A good example comes from some work I did for my dissertation in Kentucky. Kentucky was about to go broke because of the immense amount of money they spent running their highly punitive department of corrections.  Kentucky had to change and getting more punitive was not a viable option. The only thing they could try was rehabilitation, focusing on educational opportunity for prisoners and vocational training. They instituted a monetary incentives, as well as time incentives, to emulate real world gains from individual efforts at self improvement. They have been remarkably successful in this effort and the programs have literally changed the way people understand  prisoners and the meaning of prison work in the Commonwealth. 

I went and interviewed correctional officers in every prison run by the commonwealth, and asked them how they understood this shift in perspective. In the punitive model, the thinking was that convicted prisoners are not worth anything, they only represent punishment policy at work. However when Kentucky made the shift in prison orthodoxy from punishment to rehabilitation and education, they shifted resources as well. And that shift was based on a new understanding of incarcerated people being worthy of resources; a marked difference form the 1994 Crime Bill! We know that in the correctional setting, staff buy in is critical to successful policy and programmatic shifts. With that in mind, how did correctional officers understand the shifting moral worth of incarcerated people and the shift in resources including financial benefits for prisoners? In other words, how can the same prisoner be worth nothing this Tuesday but the following Tuesday she’s worth a serious investment including direct payments into her own pocket to encourage good behavior and preparation for reentry? Thankfully most of these officers understood and went along with, if not directly supported this major shift in the way of doing corrections. The others, according to officials were let go in order to provide the best chance of success going forward. 

But first, correctional departments need to get a good understanding of the attitudes and beliefs held by their staff. That knowledge is the key to knowing how to approach policy integration here, because changing people’s minds is going to be harder than we think. If the Pell grant program does pass, it will mean a real change for institutions that have not offered real kindness to prisoners in decades – if ever. Places like South Carolina and Alabama, that have been rocked by prison riots, high homicide rates (in prison) and horrific conditions of confinement. Places like those will experience a seismic shift in their institutional way of life and culture when these programs are implemented. It will be really interesting to see how a kinder form of justice will sit within these locales. I am looking forward to seeing how Pell Grant restoration is received when it happens.

Where do we go from here? How do we really chip away at what’s occurring in the coming years and what do you see as being next in terms of our efforts for prison reform in the criminal justice system? 

What are our ethics? What are our values? We really need to establish an ethical compass that does not have the production of inequality at due north. We must tackle some root problems. We have to look at how capitalism is NOT working for everyone and we have to  reckon with race as a country. These are our great crucibles. They weaponize inequality and provide the foundation upon which violence, exclusion, and punishment are justified. We have to stop abandoning other human beings to imprisonment and the horror of subjecting others to so much damage from a system that is not working. 

We have to remember mass incarceration is a symptom. If we only take out the symptom the root will produce new growth and we will be caught in a perhaps more difficult to conquer iteration of punishment, exclusion, violence and inequality. Historically, we have played this game of whack-a-mole where we just smash symptoms. Now we’re whacking away at mass incarceration and we gotta knock that out, But something else punitive is gonna pop up, especially if we don’t reckon with racism and get a reality check on capitalism. And we’re getting very real indicators of the new form that racial and economic social control will take as mass incarceration falls out of favor. 

When thinking of our future without those reckonings, think Black Mirror and China’s Social Credit Score. The new kind of punishment regime will be more insidious, less physically violent, and deeply-rooted in white mathematical logic and white empirics to such a degree that breaking people free from this new system and its death grip on freedom of choice, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and individual liberty will be extremely difficult. While all but the most dangerous (to the new system of social control – not necessarily to other people) will be free from physical prisons, the vast majority of people will be yet completely constrained and limited in their choices in life by scoring, sorting, and new ways of understanding meta-data. Credit scores, browsing history, location history, style choices, meal plans, and preferred porn channel will all join forces in a wide and fuzzy logic that will narrow life’s choices in ways that are tough to fathom. And while some will say that I exaggerate, I suggest a quick review of history and the well-documented ways of domination, exploitation, and limitation used by ruling elites to control the masses. 

And I give you this story: in June I had a birthday, My Dad, being the nice guy he is, sent a card and a check for $100, something he has done for years. I promptly took its’ picture and deposited it in my bank. Only to be told that I presented too high a risk to authorize the $100 deposit. How is one not qualified to receive a money gift when the funds are authorized and available? 

How is because an algorithmic risk score calculated my risk level as too high to deposit a good check into a bank account?  I live in Manhattan, have not been arrested or even issued a ticket since 2004. I have since achieved many goals, some of them quite remarkable. What I have not done is commit financial crime or fraud. And for that matter my dad has not breached the law in any way. What would disqualify me from depositing a good check? Could it be my criminal history read without any context? We’ll never know because the company who scored the risk is a private company working for banks and not for people such as myself. If this system is already blocking me, a highly educated, white, gay, Manhattanite, who has not been arrested for anything since 2004, from depositing a good check for 100 bucks, what does that signal to those people who have been historically subject to unimaginable harms? 

It is a warning that we are in deeply troubling waters here for people with any criminal history, and especially for those of us who live in areas that have been underfunded, used, for those who have been exploited by people in power as perfect places for an outsize share of NIMBY’s, and for those who still live with the effects of decades of de jure residential segregation. 

If we cannot choose with whom we share or give money, then our freedom of association, and freedom of speech, both liberty interests established in our constitution, have been breached. And these algorithmic eligibility determinators paint a highly dystopian landscape of underground everything. While promising fun and adventure that only a true underground presents, I’ll pass on that in favor of keeping my freedoms of speech and association, while passing on being complicit in the production of a true underclass who will be totally bound to their social location, with very little social mobility, hope, or collective efficacy to get them out of their virtual prison.  

It is a sad day indeed when those in dire circumstances must qualify to receive help from those who are not only willing but happy to provide help to them. This goes hand-in-hand with the expanding number of laws nationwide criminalizing aid to the homeless, to people crossing the southern border, and to other human beings who are in dire straights but still deserve dignity, respect, and care.  

I have painted a picture of what I think will happen, but what I hope does NOT happen. I want this prediction to be completely incorrect, making me look like an everlasting fool. What can we do to make me wrong here? I think that we have a very small window of time to assert humanist, harm reductionist principles into the organizational hierarchy of these systems. We could well be headed to something in some ways much worse than mass incarceration and its constant recidivist churning of men from prison to society and back again. We might not be able to stop the better part of the ways algorithms will control our choices and our lives. But we can and must work to ensure that these algorithms do not harm people of color, the poor, LGBT people, and people with criminal records. The ontology of their white logic prefigures choices made by members of these groups, as inherently abnormal and deviant. It’s the same racist, class-biased punishment system, albeit packaged in a gentler, mathematically tight and quiet way that promises to quell unrest, stabilize profit, and so on. 

And that’s what I worry about most. This new system fails yet again to marshal humanistic solutions over security or market-based answers. And certainly fails at reflexivity because the algorithmic developers have not likely pondered how it feels to be a social problem and the history of that fundamental question. Nor am I confident that they have built in controls that repair bad scoring generated by misunderstanding the historical record, therein blaming POC and LGBT people and the poor for troubles the government and capitalism have wrought in their communities. Wrongdoing here is in the potential risk developers bring to life by misunderstanding the massive illegality and wrongdoing on the part of the government and the government’s culpability when it comes to criminal behavior perpetrated in these communities. Incorrectly understanding  race, culture and history will lead to incorrect assignment of blame to members of marginalized groups and will act to coerce or coax behavior not previously considered into life, by narrowing the set of even mundane life choices. In other words by failing to locate blame for de jure harms in government hands, we blame the victims of these harms and further harm them by giving them poor risk scores based on their social location. This is a call to action for social scientists to do work that prevents these harms!

We have much work to do. Finding ways to end the cycle of inequality, including finding ways to limit the ability of algorithms to locate the harms of de jure racism and homophobia in the victims of those moral failings, now needs to be our priority if we want a future where we can look to our best selves with hope. Instead we are now guided by somebody’s aggregated worst fears, guided by completely slipshod science – poorly conceived and constructed algorithms that only suggest a high risk is potentially happening, because of a constructed, hallucinatory vision of bogeymen that has never been borne out by data that control for de jure racist, homophobic, elitist, action by the government or supported by the government? Isn’t it high time we stop this circus of white logics and white methods that have brought so much mythology into a reality of far too much harm?