Born in Fort Campbell, Ky., to an abusive father and a bipolar mother, Jason Borne — whose name has been changed to remain anonymous — moved with his older sister and the rest of his family to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was a young child after his father was injured in an auto accident. With little-to-no income to pay the rent, and his father in the VA hospital in the city, the family fell on hard times, forced to live in less-than-ideal conditions.
“With my mother not having a high school degree and no longer having my father’s income, we lived in an apartment on 117th street, which was basically a ghetto,” Borne remembered. “Very high-crime neighborhood. Very poor.”
Soon after they moved to Ohio, his mother divorced his father, and they all moved back to Indiana, where she was from originally. But even then, Borne’s life was far from smooth sailing
“I was preschool-aged at that point,” he said. “After several boyfriends, my mom remarried another alcoholic man, and we lived with him in Huntington from my Kindergarten years to about 4th grade. After that didn’t work out, we lived in several dive apartments until she finally got a loan for a nice place on the north side of LaFontaine St. This is where my troubles started.”
Borne’s mother worked two full-time jobs in order to pay for the house, so Jason and his sister were left with little supervision at a young age. This lack of supervision and guidance led Jason to start doing drugs by the time he was a teenager.
“I started smoking weed at 13, and started selling it shortly after,” Borne said. “I added LSD and other hallucinogens to my product list by 15.”
But just before his 17th birthday, Borne was discovered by a confidential informant for the Huntington Police Department, who wore a wire during two drug sales. Borne was taken to court and charged as an adult with two Class A felonies, which are the highest criminal charge below murder. Borne was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison and was taken to the Indiana Department of Corrections just shortly after he turned 17. Smith remained in prison for almost six years, until he was nearly 22.
“I already was a depressed and angry guy, and I largely used weed and copious amounts of alcohol to self medicate,” Borne said. “I basically didn’t trust anyone, including my own family, and was quick to hate anyone who had ever wronged me.”
Before being taken to prison, Borne had little exposure to any non-white, lower-class people, aside from when he was buying drugs from various gang members in Chicago and Detroit. This lack of exposure to other cultures led him to begin to paint in his mind a picture of non-whites as people who were involved in crime and illegal activity. This was particularly true for his view of African Americans.
Still, however, Borne’s views were not as extreme as they would become.
“Before prison, I didn’t have any bias, really, against anyone of color or different ethnicity, but what impression I did have was of the criminal element of African American life,” Borne said.
These impressions of African-American people did not improve once Borne was in prison.
“I’d say it really started when they sent me to Westville Correctional Facility, which I had heard to be what other inmates called a ‘Gladiator School/Camp,'” he said. “Now Westville is one of the rougher prisons in the state largely because of location. The policy is to house inmates as close to home as possible within their security level, and Westville is, like, 20 minutes from Gary, Ind.”
Borne was placed in the level 2 security bracket, and because he was young and considered likely to try to escape, was considered a “flight risk.” Once he was in Westville, Borne suddenly found himself as a young, smaller man and a racial minority, and he quickly became a target for some who were looking to start fights.
“The majority of inmates are black, inner city, gang members,” Borne remembered. “At the time, it was about 85 percent black, 10 percent Latin, and 5 percent white. I doubt it’s changed much. So I was small, young, and in the racial minority, which made me a prime target for angry, black gang members who were mad at ‘the man’ or, more specifically, the white man and his justice system, which had obviously not been good to most of them.”
Borne remembers his first fight with another inmate on the very first day he was at Westville.
“My very first day, as I was walking around the rec yard [which was fenced in] with my property box on my way to the intake dorm, a guy asked me to buy my rosary,” he said. “A black guy for the record. When I said, ‘No, it’s not for sale,’ his reply was, ‘Fine. I’ll take it then. Either way, I’ma have it.'”
When Borne got back to the dorm, he found out the man who threatened to take his rosary lived there, too. When the rest of the dorm got back from the rec yard, the man confronted Borne and started a fist fight.
“When they got back, he came for me,” Borne said. “Lucky for me, he hit like a girl! No offense. And I actually won my first fight. And kept my rosary.”
And that was not the only fight Borne got into during his time in prison.
“That was the first of 422 fights in 5.5 years,” Borne said. “I started keeping track because I was already in 11 fights in the first week. All with black guys. None of which did I actually initiate. Almost all my fights in that 5.5 years were with black guys. And I never started a single damn one of them. After my first year in Westville, I’d been in something near to 200 fights just to retain my property, keep from being raped, or defend my ‘honor,’ because if you don’t stand up and fight, you’re a bitch. And if you get that label, you’re fucked. Literally and metaphorically.”
Borne quickly learned how to fight and defend himself. And soon, his tenacity and boldness caught the eye of a group of Skinheads, who were known for never backing down from a fight. Skinheads are a neo-Nazi sect best known for their often violent hate crimes against Jews, the LGBT community, and people of color.
“After that first year, I was approached by some Skinheads who had been watching me and liked that I never backed down — even when I knew I’d get beat up. They offered to initiate me into their group. I knew by then that while there weren’t many skinheads as opposed to the Aryan Brotherhood, which is a much bigger organization, they were not to be fucked with because they were vicious. Heartless. Brutal. And they always took care of their people, so long as those people never backed down and were as ruthless as you can be.”
Borne decided to take them up on their offer and was an active member of the Skinheads for three years.
“I accepted. I learned their beliefs and adopted them as my own.”
Borne got into more fights and altercations during his time with the Skinheads, and his security level went up to a 3, the highest it could go. He moved in to the disciplinary dorm, which is the roughest dorm in Westville, but was eventually kicked out of that prison because he was deemed a “threat to the safety and security of the institution.”
Borne was sent to Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a higher security-level prison in Carlisle, Ind.
“There, I was one of maybe a dozen skinheads out of around 2,000 prisoners. And they kept us all separated from each other because we were known to be the most ‘uncooperative’ and most violent of all the security threat groups, or STGs.”
Borne began rising through the ranks of the Skinheads, and eventually became their leader at Wabash Valley.
“I began recruiting new members, and organizing the existing members regardless of which Skinhead group they belonged to, and there are many,” Borne said. “After about a year, I was the de facto ‘leader’ of the skinheads in WVCF.”
The guards at the correctional facility relied on Borne and the leaders of other gangs at the correctional facility to try and keep riots and inter-gang disputes at bay.
“The guards in there actually rely on leaders of gangs to settle disputes quietly, so that there aren’t race riots and gang wars, so I even had pull with the authorities,” Borne said. “They would allow us to stage one-on-one fights to settle disputes without involving huge numbers of casualties. That meant opening our cells to allow us to meet in a single cell to duke it out, and that would be the end of whatever the trouble was. Or just turning their heads to minor conflicts like that so they wouldn’t escalate.”
His time at Wabash Valley was the peak of Borne’s discrimination.
“This was the height of my racism. Period.”
Borne eventually was able to lower his security level and dropped back down to a level 2. He then got sent to Miami County Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Ind., and was considered a “short timer” since he only had about a year left on his sentence when he was transferred.
“There, I was a nobody again, but I really wanted to just lay low and stay out of trouble so I could go home.”
This is when Borne started to reform his beliefs, largely due to his violent interactions with the Aryan Brotherhood.
“By that time, the Aryan Brotherhood hated me because I was a threat to their control over white supremacists,” Borne said. “And all throughout, I’d been repeatedly butting heads with them because they claimed to be for upholding white people while they were actually running extortion scams on them and victimizing other white people. Which is hugely hypocritical!”
Borne also started working alongside leaders of black gangs in the correctional facility to try and minimize gang violence, which helped him to learn how to negotiate truces with people who were different from him.
“I’d been working with leaders of black gangs that were actually very level headed and just wanted to get along in peace,” Borne said. “I started to realize that there were guys on the other side that just wanted peace, but knew violence was sometimes the only way to get that peace, and so we worked together to minimize the violence.”
Then things began to change in Borne’s mind.
“I came to the realization from that that race alone didn’t make you a good or bad person,” Borne said. “Plenty of white guys from the Aryan Brotherhood had tried to kill me, and plenty of black guys had been perfectly reasonable and peaceful. When I thought about how many white guys had been animals towards me and mine, and how many black guys had been very civilized … It just didn’t make sense to say that all blacks are bad and whites are in any way superior. My experience just couldn’t support that idea anymore. That was the start of my apotheosis.”
Borne remembers one moment from his time at Miami County that sealed the deal for his change in thought. A black man from another gang told him that a member of the Aryan Brotherhood was planning an attack on his life that night.
“That warning very likely saved my life. And he had no reason to warn me other than plain human decency,” Borne said. “He gained nothing, but I kept my life.”
Borne resigned from leading the Skinheads, which was met with surprisingly little resistance from the rest of the group.
“The skinheads actually understood where my mind was and had no problems,” Borne said. “The Aryan Brotherhood, on the other hand, took that as their cue to try to cut my tattoos off and or kill me — which just cemented what I had already come to see. Which is simply that there are good and bad members of every single racial group. None of us was really any better or worse than the others.”
Borne was released in 2006 after five and a half years in the system, and has sense transitioned into a more peaceful way of living. But there are still many in Huntington who remember Borne for the person he used to be, even though he no longer identifies with the Skinhead beliefs. This has led to some uncomfortable interactions. Borne also has tattoos on his body that he got while in prison that he tries to hide as much as possible.
“A lot of people still feel like it’s okay to be racist around me because of my past, even though I’ve made it clear that I’m just don’t feel that way anymore,” Borne said. “Because of the tattoos I have, I can’t go to a public swimming pool or take my shirt off in front of others because it leads to fights most often.”
Because of his prior record as a fighter and Skinhead leader, Borne is always careful to stay out of trouble with the police for fear of being sent back.
“If I ever get into a fistfight with anyone who isn’t white, I know that my tattoos and my file with the state will lead to hate crime charge in addition to any other charges,” Borne said. “So a simple altercation at a bar or club could turn into a life sentence for me just because of my youthful ignorance. But its all a result of my own ignorance and poor decisions, so I can’t really say it’s completely unwarranted. It just isn’t me anymore, but it hangs over my head like a stormcloud just waiting to make things worse than they have to be.”
And though Borne does not do much directly with the community to combat racism, he tries to live his life in a way that is a model and a challenge to others.
“I don’t do anything proactively in the community largely because it’s too easy to discredit me as a hypocrite,” Borne said. “I just don’t discriminate against anybody.”
So what is go-to model for dismantling racist arguments? Logic.
“When people say racist stuff around me, I make a point of trying to use logic to show that their statement is erroneous. Racism is inherently a logically flawed belief system based in fear of something different, and fear breeds hate,” Borne said. “It’s actually pretty easy to tear apart any argument in favor of racism because it is based in such fundamental misunderstandings.”
For Borne, an open mind is key to understanding people that are different from you, and understanding that flaws are present on all sides.
“I try to encourage others to keep an open mind, and only judge people individually for their actions rather than equating one or even several bad experiences with an entire race or category of people,” Borne said. “There are bad people of all racial or ethnic categories, but they don’t represent everyone in those groups. They represent only themselves. I think understanding that basic fact is easy for most people, and if they only think about it a little they’ll come to the realization that I did.”
But still, Borne recognizes that not everyone is willing to let go of their racist beliefs.
“Some people just can’t let go of their prejudice, and them I leave to believe as they will. Even bigots are entitled to be bigots. I don’t have to respect or like them, and they don’t have to respect or like me.”
For Borne, the messages of Christ and Buddha serve a good model for how to interact with people in a hospitable, understanding and non-prejudiced light.
“If you would be like Christ, and keep the commandments of the Father, simply love. We are the children of the same God, and should love one another as brothers and sisters under His fatherhood,” Borne said. “For whatever it’s worth, the Buddha also says, ‘Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.’ And that is a lesson worth remembering.”