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Matter Of Course: Critical Perspectives in Restorative Justice    

January 8, 2019

Stereotypes challenged & stigmas lessened as Trent students work with incarcerated people as part of unique learning experience

Gillian Balfour and students

Gender & Women’s Studies WMST-4441H: Critical Perspectives in Restorative Justice
Dr. Gillian Balfour

Challenging stereotypes as they pertain to incarcerated people while lessening the stigmatization of those behind bars is at the heart of a unique prison-based course taught by Trent Sociology professor Dr. Gillian Balfour. In the words of one student who studied alongside incarcerated student, “this was the most important experience in my university career at Trent”.

“We are building bridges between the Trent community and those who are incarcerated, all of who will be returning to the community, often with few options and supports…it is a way for the University to be civically engaged and responsible,” says Professor Balfour of Critical Perspectives in Restorative Justice), a Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology course which sees 10 Trent students visit weekly with 10 incarcerated people.

“Students take responsibility for getting to the prison, engaging respectfully with institutional staff and acquire knowledge of the correctional system with regards to the challenges of accessing education. Most importantly, they are also expected to challenge their own stereotypical assumptions of incarcerated people. All students take away the ability to conduct restorative justice practice, an understanding of the tensions or difficulties surrounding restorative justice, and a deepened sense of community and commitment to fostering restorative justice in their lives,” explains Prof. Balfour about the unique course.

With the Correctional Service of Canada on board as a full partner, the course is an example of Trent’s experiential learning model at its most effective.

“Many of the concepts we teach about are brought alive by both the experience of entering and being in a prison/jail, and by the contributions of students living such experiences,” Prof. Balfour explains.

“Our teaching model challenges conventional educational models that rely on the professor as the ‘expert.’ Instead we view all students and instructors as both teachers and learners, and value the knowledge inherent in lived experiences of criminalization, imprisonment, poverty, abuse, racism and so on.”

Part of the Walls To Bridges program that creates and fosters collaborative and innovative learning communities within correctional settings, the course is lauded by the Correctional Service of Canada as an educational programming best practice that results in a level of community engagement and quality of post-secondary learning unmatched by conventional correspondence course.

Students are selected through a competitive process, and is open to all 4th year students in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The selection process focuses on interview results and a written submission. What matters is a commitment to social justice in what we say and do. Prof. Balfour invites students with questions to contact her directly at gillianbalfour@trentu.ca.