Dr. Jay Borchert has a very rich life. Before joining the Drug Policy Alliance in 2019 as a researcher and quantitative analyst, he served as an assistant professor of Sociology at John Jay College and an Emerging Diversity Scholar at the University of Michigan. His road to those prestigious positions came via 50 arrests and 7 years in prison.
For years, Jay struggled with problematic drug use that led to years in and out of the criminal justice system. It was during one of his stints in prison that he saw some of the real harms and failures of the drug war.
One day, while trying to use the communal phone, he was attacked by another prisoner. The individual grabbed the phone and started to beat Jay on the head, telling him that the phone belonged to him not Jay. Such violent incidents are not unusual behind prison walls, but the experience, while frightening, provided an epiphany that that changed Jay’s worldview and paved the road to his future career as a criminal justice scholar.
Sometime after the incident, the prisoner who attacked Jay approached him and apologized. With tears in his eyes he explained that the prison medical staff had been giving him the wrong medication, which caused the violent outburst.
"That profound moment in my life showed me how the system fails so many people and how diagnosis should be objectively applied. And how stigma can make voices invalid and ignorable, as prisoners are portrayed as less than human. So many good people can go a life time without seeing evidence of the truth of the moment like he had. A moment that can open our eyes and souls to the humanity around us."
Jay’s prison experience inspired his research work and he remains devoted to an examination of human rights and prisons and prisoners as objects of both legal and social negotiation and conflict.
Anthony Papa is manager of media relations with the Drug Policy Alliance.