People Profiles

Liz Elliott, PhD, Criminology

September 03, 2015

Dr. Liz Elliott helped the world see beyond iron bars and handcuffs. 

Elliott earned a PhD in Criminology at SFU in 1996. She joined the university's School of Criminology as a faculty member in 2000. She was a board member of the Canadian Prisoner Aid Organization, the John Howard Society of the Fraser Valley and the West Coast Prison Justice Society. Dr. Elliott passed away in 2011 following a battle with cancer.

Elliott dedicated her career to supporting individuals convicted of often-horrific crimes, advocating for the improvement of prisoners’ living conditions as well as the services available to support their post-release transitions. She also spent countless hours with a restorative justice group, FAVOUR, based out of a federal minimum security institution, and taught in SFU's Prison Education Program.  

Elliott’s approach was based in a fundamental recognition of prisoners as people first: “She didn’t deny that someone had committed a crime, but she did deny that that was the whole essence of them — she wanted people to see the full person behind the crime,” says Neil Boyd, Elliott's faculty colleague and PhD supervisor. 

Elliott truly embodied the change she wanted to see in the world. Milt Guppe, her partner explains that prisoners were welcomed into their home and their lives — she offered them the same level of trust and empathy she hoped to see reflected in the rest of society.

“Our children were babysat by murderers and lifers who were on community release because we trusted them,” says Guppe. “We knew they would protect our children.”

Elliott’s approach was based on her belief that building a better criminal justice system needed to begin with changing the way individuals perceive crime and criminals, as she described in her book, Security with Care.

“I learned that the problems were much deeper than a flawed criminal justice system, and that our work needed to begin in our relationships with each other and the natural world, and most importantly, with ourselves,” wrote Elliott.

Elliott also worked to promote new ways of understanding among her students by facilitating opportunities to allow students to visit prisoners, and prisoners to visit classrooms.

According to Boyd, these experiences forced students to challenge their assumptions of who and what a prisoner is. “The prisoners were always accompanied by an escort and we had a game where we’d ask which is the prisoner and which is the escort and people couldn’t tell — I think that really helped them to see that it wasn’t all black and white and that there were people behind the prison sentence,” says Boyd. 

Elliott also cofounded the Centre for Criminal Justice at SFU, a resource and research centre dedicated to promoting the values and principles of restorative justice — a practice whose roots are found in Aboriginal healing traditions and the non-retaliatory responses to violence endorsed by many faith communities. Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by criminal acts.

She also lectured in Brazil, Portugal, Latvia and many other countries to promote the practice of restorative justice internationally.   

“Churchill once said: how we deal with criminal tells a lot about our strength and resilience as a society,” says Boyd.

Elliott’s commitment to helping prisoners become whole again, and to helping others recognize their human potential, helped to build a more humane, healthier, ethical and safer society for all.

Note: The School of Criminology is holding a memorial service for Liz Elliott on September 11, 2015 at 10:30 am, First Nations Atrium. Go to this link for more information and to register.

Author: Jackie Amsden

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