Fourth-year sociology class steps out of the classroom and into Dorchester Penitentiary
12/22/2015 1:48:31 PM
Penitentiary_mainSociology professor and critical criminologist Ardath Whynacht spent this past semester challenging her fourth-year seminar class with the concept of “sawbonna” — a transformative justice model that means “I see you” and signifies seeing the value in another human regardless of what they have done. Poet and advocate for transformative justice Margot Van Sluytman introduced the concept to the class.

Whynacht encouraged the 20-person class to implement “sawbonna” when there were miscommunications as they were working together in their group public engagement projects.

“I really challenged them to use this idea,” she says. “If there has been a harm, how do we use this to see the value in one another and use this as a step towards reparation?”

For their independent final projects, the class was asked to write a scholarly paper or speculative fiction on a world without incarceration.

“I challenged them to think outside the discipline and punishment model,” she says. “In a post-carceral world, how do we live together and treat each other well without using the threat of punishment or containment as a way to regulate behavior?”

Whynacht believes this kind of exercise is important for sociologists.

“It is important because in sociology we become really good at critiquing, but it can leave us feeling really burnt out when all we can do is critique. I think it is nice to have a balance, where you can give yourself a break from seeing the failures and be able to imagine something radically different,” she says.

The finale to the course was visiting the minimum security Dorchester Penitentiary. Whynacht says that criminology students often visit prisons and do a tour of the facilities, but what they hoped to do with this field trip was very different.

“We were looking to take up the challenge of ‘sawbonna’ and have a friendly and thorough conversation with a group of men who wanted to discuss what it is like serving a long-term sentence.”

Fourth-year women’s and gender studies and sociology student Martha Kerr considers this field trip one of her most memorable moments at Mount Allison.  

“It was amazing being given that opportunity, getting past the stereotypes of seeing these people as ‘othered’ and something to study, and realizing they are people,” says Kerr. “They are men, they are intelligent, and they have stories to tell. And so often they are not given the opportunity to tell these stories.”

Fourth-year honours sociology student Emily Arsenault says this kind of learning experience helped her grasp the difficult theories learned in class.

“The material in a critical criminology course can be incredibly difficult to fully understand,” she says. “Having the opportunity to step within the walls of a correctional institution enabled us to discuss the more difficult theories in much more comprehensible ways.”

In fact the visit has helped shape Arsenault’s honours thesis work and the direction she plans to pursue in graduate school.

“Visiting the Dorchester Penitentiary really aided in framing my research questions and goals, while also solidifying why I chose to do this form of research in the first place,” she says. "

Arsenault will look to develop an understanding of the relationship between masculinity and past experiences of hardship in the lives of men serving long sentences within the Dorchester Penitentiary.

Whynacht was impressed with how the students interacted in the talking circle.
“The students were incredibly considerate and thoughtful and kind,” she says. "They left a wonderful impression within the institution and the men spoke really honestly about their experiences and theoretically about what it means to take responsibility for something that you’ve done.”