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Home » Discover Rackham » Graduation After Incarceration: a Rackham Student Earns His Ph.D.

People slowly fill up the seats in a green and gold room before Jay Borchert even arrives. It’s the day of his dissertation defense, a day that is perhaps the most important milestone in a doctoral student’s career, a culmination of five or more years of intensive work; they’re presenting their research publicly and receiving feedback from their mentors and, if all goes well, their soon-to-be academic peers.

As if this moment weren’t already soaked through with the weight of its significance, Jay Borchert’s defense was uniquely meaningful. Prior to beginning his academic career, Borchert had spent over seven years in prison. He said that the defense was “the final step in turning my life around from the last time I was arrested and incarcerated in 2004.”

Borchert’s doctoral work focuses on incarceration in the United States, including the ways we treat and understand prisoners, work conditions for prison staff, and the varied relationship each group has with prison administrations. All this is under the umbrella of revealing the myriad ways the criminal justice system is broken: “Our criminal justice system is failing citizens at every point–not only who we watch, but who we arrest, prosecute, and sentence, and in the ways we fail to actually prepare these men and women to reenter society upon release.” Government agencies, journalists, academics, and advocates and prisoners themselves have all documented our broken system, particularly its disparate effects upon the poor and people of color but little has changed with these data. Borchert decided to go back into prisons as a researcher to collect new data that might one day lead to real change–eventually.

Beginning at Michigan

When Borchert first applied to the Rackham’s Summer Research Opportunity at the University of Michigan, he didn’t want to study prisons at all: “I didn’t want to do prison research at the time I attended SROP, to be honest. I was interested in doing work in medical sociology or public health. I came to SROP in 2009, and I had only been out [of prison] for three years at that point–it was too close to the bone, too early.”

There was another reason for Borchert to pursue a higher education degree: it afforded him social mobility that few convicts are allowed to access: “I knew from digging and reading that the only way to get ahead after prison is to get an education. The higher the education, the fewer barriers to employment. Even with a Bachelor’s degree, jobs are restricted because of background checks. My crimes were nonviolent thankfully, and, as you go up in education, there is less reliance on background checking. At a certain point it’s like you’ve demonstrated to society or gatekeepers that you are qualified. Yet, even with a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. and 10 years out, it’s still difficult to protect myself and my future.”

Despite his initial resistance, Borchert’s interest was eventually ignited by the prisons and punishment field, particularly because he felt that the literature was lacking. He wanted to see more critical voices and the voices of prisoners themselves as part of the knowledge informing the field. He also wanted to see less reliance on outsiders who came to make very serious proclamations about an experience they never had themselves. Maybe he had something to contribute.

More than just finding and filling gaps in the literature, Borchert is motivated by his own potential to make change. Jeffrey Morenoff, a U-M professor of Sociology who served on Borchert’s dissertation committee, said that “Jay seems to move effortlessly back and forth between the worlds of academia and activism and he finds ways of getting access to people and places that would be off-limits to most researchers. His own life experiences in the corrections system also give him a perspective that few academics have and it also fuels him with a passion for his work that few others can match.”

The Ethics & Importance of Prison Research

Just as much as Borchert felt he could contribute to the knowledge and reform of prisons, he felt that he had an ethic to contribute to those projects as well–an ethic seated in his ability to see prison reform from multiple perspectives. “It’s important,” he says, “that we as researchers don’t leave the people we study behind–that we keep the focus on them. The work is not about me and my career, or about the university. It’s about you as a researcher producing research that can solve social problems going on today on the ground.”

His research does just that. The first chapter of his dissertation (which won an award from the American Sociology Association) was able to empirically show disparate landscapes of punishment for LGBT prisoners, a project that Borchert says “wasn’t easy.” The greatest barrier to obtaining this data: people didn’t want to think about it: “When we hear about police involved in racist practices, there is always some group that wants it to be anything but racism. I found a similar phenomenon in this first project–why are people so invested in denying homophobia? I never got a good answer.”

But he was able to prove a disparate treatment of LGBT prisoners empirically, for the first time ever. Borchert is proud of this work especially, because not only did his findings make room for other researchers to ask further questions, but it gave activists and prisoners room to say: “Look, this has been demonstrated empirically.”

Future Projects

As for his commitment to research producing on-the-ground change, Borchert has another project in the works post-graduation. Along with Pete Martell, a state appellate public defender in Michigan, he is working to end juvenile life without parole. “Life without parole affects 366 people in Michigan alone. If we could change this–it would be the biggest contribution I could possibly make.”

Borchert is grateful for the opportunities his past and his education have afforded him, and perhaps more than that he recognizes the impact he can have on changemakers: “I come in the room as someone with a Michigan credential to talk about issues I care about. I have their ear.” In fact, yet another project sprung from conversations and connections forged at one of his many speaking events; Borchert will soon be researching the relationships and responses of inmates and correctional officers who are from the same small, working class, community areas in Chicago – looking into familial relations and friendships between Cook County prisoners and Cook County Jail staff.

Borchert partially credits his education and the clout behind his U-M credentials for having the ability to study vulnerable populations and make positive changes in the system. A few years ago, Borchert was the keynote speaker at an event in Chicago supporting an organization called Safer Foundation, an organization that helps former inmates navigate barriers to employment and access services that support reentry. People were wearing evening gowns, the cook county sheriff attended, and Governor Rauner of Illinois was there. It was a turnaround moment for him, he says, because he had been a client of Safer Foundation just a few years before.

Difficulty Returning/Worlds Colliding

There were times when his former life and his current didn’t reunite so seamlessly. Returning to prisons for research could be traumatic for Borchert: “[Going back to a prison for research was a] shock to the system. I couldn’t believe I was voluntarily walking into a lockup facility. ‘Were they going to let me go?’ I wondered.” In fact, there once was a bureaucratic mix up, and Borchert was held in a room until the error was sorted. “I was terrified that I was stuck–that it was happening again.”

From then on, research slowly got a little easier. A good deal of that is due to the fact that he confounds people’s expectations of what a convict looks, sounds, and acts like: “I don’t present as a convict. Students can’t believe it. People think that convicts are not ‘like me.’ Many are and many aren't, to varying degrees. Many are bright, intelligent, and capable, but they are caught in the system. A lot depends on where they were raised, their level of poverty, whether they are people of color, in poverty–society doesn't give people of color the same opportunities. I have a deep responsibility to all prisoners because I have the privilege to present a safe face to the people I meet. And while the work can be heartbreaking, I work hard to get over things that are emotionally or psychologically challenging, because this work has to be done. I’ve been given the gift of witnessing, and you can’t make change unless you’re willing to walk into horrible spaces and witness what the system is perpetrating. Sometimes it’s still hard. Some things are not easy to see. Not easy to see at all. But my responsibility as a researcher with a commitment to social change is to not put myself first in the process.”

There were times when Borchert’s worlds collided in ways that paved paths forward for himself and for others at U-M. Borchert worked as a Graduate Student Instructor during his time at U-M, and his colleague and professor of sociology at U-M, Professor Pamela Smock, remembers just such a moment: “My favorite memory of Jay was when I was the Director of the Population Studies Center (PSC) and Jay came running into PSC, sees me, is very excited, and tells me that something very important had just happened. He goes on to describe it. He was a GSI for a sociology course and the professor was showing some slides of institutions, I believe. Suddenly, a photo of a prison came up, Jay is shocked, and said to everyone something like, ‘That’s where I was in prison.’ He told me that this was a very powerful experience, for both him and the undergraduate students. As he put it, ‘it was a fantastic moment of connection with my students, for them to confront and tear down walls and to build a sociological imagination.’”

Borchert is continuing to pursue a career in which he can work for better treatment of inmates and fight to fix a broken prison system. This fall, he’ll begin a tenure track position at Manhattan College in New York. He sees himself continuing the legacy of a Dr. A. Kathryn Stout, a criminologist who passed away in July 2015. He will be leading their crime, law, and justice concentration and teaching courses on prisons, law and society, and criminology among others. Borchert is excited to be teaching at Manhattan College because, like his earlier alma mater DePaul University, it has a strong social justice mission, and there is room for him to continue doing the work that is so important to him.

Reflecting once more on the moment of his dissertation defense, the final test that would make it possible for him to continue along his activist academic journey, he calls the moment “bittersweet.” “When we think about life after incarceration,” he says, “There are steps: a first job, a first apartment. I had achieved all that. Then finally finishing my dissertation…for a moment it felt like there wasn’t anything left to do that I had wanted to accomplish.” But life goes on after a doctoral student’s research, and often, as is Borchert’s case, the dissertation merely scratches the surface of the depth of a social or scientific problem. In Borchert’s view, there is much work to be done.