This story is featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Showcase: The Champions of Change Issue. »View the complete publication
When it comes to the devastating circumstances faced by many incarcerated women in this country, Dr. Gillian Balfour has seen it all. Her research experience bears witness to racism, violence, and unspeakable loss.
As a member of the Sociology Department at Trent, Professor Balfour researches conditions of confinement in women’s prisons and the compounding effects of victimization in the lives of criminalized – especially poor and racialized – women. Through action and education, Prof. Balfour encourages her students, and society as a whole, to take a closer look at who goes to prison.
As a graduate student in Winnipeg, Prof. Balfour researched ways to improve programs for female inmates. Involved in the prisoner advocacy community, she ran a group for women facing life sentences.
“I was struck by the implications of building better prisons for women who were already imprisoned through poverty and victimization,” Prof. Balfour recalls. “I decided there were bigger questions about law regarding the criminalization, victimization and incarceration of Indigenous women.”
Her research now includes sentencing of Indigenous women and sentencing reforms.
Faces of injustice
Prof. Balfour’s work paints a vivid picture for her students at Trent.
“They have been moved by the archival images I have shown in class as a way of documenting how women have been punished in Canada,” said Prof. Balfour. “I make connections in my classroom between historical practices and what is happening today. The resonance of these images is striking.”
Inspired by what they have learned in her classes, many of Prof. Balfour’s students continue their studies at graduate school or law school, exploring key areas of study, including incarceration of those with addictions and mental health needs, and prevention of deaths in custody.
Reverberating community impact
In recognition of her ground-breaking research, Prof. Balfour has twice received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) supporting projects such as The Prison Transparency Project, a collaborative project with other prison scholars, which documents prisoner and immigrant detainee experiences of incarceration.
After receiving the SSHRC Insight grant in 2012, she compiled a social history of segregation and disciplinary practices inside women’s prisons.
“This project directly challenged how the state punishes women prisoners,” stated Prof. Balfour. “I was very appreciative of SSHRC's support. For me it was the recognition of the value of the research and the knowledge produced.”
Her most recent community outreach project involves working with local high schools to incorporate an online module on the history of women’s imprisonment in Canada into their grade 12 curriculum.
“Teachers have been very engaged with bringing this content into their classrooms,” explains Prof. Balfour.
From behind prison walls to contemporary classrooms, Prof. Balfour’s work is creating a far-reaching ripple effect.