“Laws on the surface can look like they are doing good things, but could potentially harm marginalized communities.” - Sydney Brown


Human trafficking and transgender incarceration: SFU Criminology honours students present marginalized communities’ research at innovative 2021 Community Summit

May 28, 2021

By Adriana González Braniff

Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology proudly highlights two exhibitors and their hard work at the April 13th, 2021, Innovations in Research event: Sydney Brown, SFU Criminology graduate student, and Jake Castro, SFU Criminology alumnus.

Innovations in Research, a dynamic and fun virtual showcase produced in partnership with SFU Woodward’s, SFU Vancouver, SFU’s Community Engaged Research Initiative, and SFU Public Square, as part of the Towards Equity Community Summit Series, gives a spotlight to a variety of fields and perspectives. The unique event highlighted SFU researchers whose work is moving us “towards equity” and making a real-world impact.

Brown’s study, “The Politicization of Human Trafficking Laws,” examines how Canadian human trafficking law appears to be based more on politically charged ideas of sex work and human trafficking than it is reflective of empirical knowledge. Her research illustrates the idea that the government is ignoring some research and vulnerable communities when making decisions and supports the importance of creating laws that are based on evidence and consultation with those affected, to stop systematic inequalities in the criminal justice system. 

Through a critical socio-legal lens, she examines the degree to which empirical evidence was relied upon by the committee, and the depth of academic support that could be found for the recommendations put forward. Brown’s findings suggest that very little academic empirical research was taken up and that the sources that most strongly influenced the committee were submitted by the government, organizations with an abolitionist ideology, and religious organizations. 

Castro’s research, “Maintaining Respect and Dignity? A Critical Comparison of Policies Governing Incarcerated Transgender People,” addresses the unique needs of transgender prisoners, advocating for equitable change through policy recommendations that promote specialized care and management while incarcerated. According to Castro’s study, transgender prisoners require additional, Queer, gender-specific care, to address the additional stigma criminalized transgender people experience in society, which is amplified in the carceral regime.

His study critically analyzes correctional policies to promote substantive equality and produces recommendations that aim to mobilize correctional policy specific to transgender prisoners "toward equity." Castro believes transgender prisoners experience differential harms under correctional regimes, and his project challenges Canadian federal policy to address such harms more substantially. 


Read the interview below to learn more about Brown and Castro’s experience with the event and their research: 

About Sydney Brown: Sydney Brown (she/her/hers) graduated in 2020 from SFU with a bachelor of arts with honours in criminology. The research presented at Innovations in Research was conducted as part of her undergraduate honours thesis. She is now pursuing her master of criminology at SFU.

About Jake Castro: Jake Castro (he/him/his) recently graduated from the Criminology Honours program in Spring 2020, in which he produced a thesis that produced five policy recommendations for Canadian corrections policy on transgender prisoners. Currently, he is pursuing a graduate degree in Criminology and Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa, at the beginning stages of a thesis covering the same subject area. Jake's non-academic experience pertains to corrections both in the governmental and non-profit settings, which has allowed him valuable experience applicable to his academic pursuits. 

How did the interest in your specific research topic begin?

Sydney Brown: Through my course work at SFU, I became very interested in how laws on the surface can look like they are doing good things, but could potentially cause harm to marginalized communities. I was interested in learning more about this process and how those laws come to be passed in the first place. This led me to talk to lecturer Tamara O’Doherty about her work. Through these conversations and O’Doherty’s course, CRIM 317 (Sex, Work, and the Law), my eyes were opened to the realities of human trafficking laws in Canada.

Jake Castro: Much of my work experience is in the corrections field, and throughout my undergraduate degree, I was drawn to critical criminological approaches. Early on with both, I realized the glaring issues surrounding correctional practice with transgender prisoners. From the hands-on corrections side, it was clear that guidance on how to care for and manage transgender prisoners and those on conditional release was rather unclear and lacking. On the academic side, there is a dearth of research on the subject, and even less now since “gender identity or expression” became a protected human right in 2017. However, the findings presented from other research are illuminating to the general maltreatment of queer persons and limitations of the carceral regime. 

Additionally, I became quite drawn to feminist and queer approaches in my theory courses, and I was especially interested in how they would guide my work with correctional policy for transgender prisoners and those on conditional release. In summary, then, I became interested in this work because I wanted to solve a problem and wanted to employ feminist and queer theory to engage with other scholarship in this subject area.

Why is your research topic important to you? 

Sydney Brown: My research topic is important to me because it brings attention to how the government seemingly ignores marginalized communities to create laws and policies that have the potential to and do harm these communities, instead of helping.

Jake Castro: I think it is important to continuously work towards equitable change that benefits the most marginalized groups that are often subjected to our criminal justice system. Focusing specifically on community-supervised and imprisoned transgender people elicit interesting praxis based both in corrections and queer activism. By focusing on this vulnerable group, the greater structural flaws of the carceral regime are exposed, which ought to promote wider-scale change. Incorporating queer theory and activism into critical corrections work advocates for the most marginalized queer folk and elicits interesting ideas on the power structure. Put more succinctly, my research topic is important to me as a vehicle to promote equitable change in carceral regimes and for marginalized queer persons.

Was there anything about your research that surprised you throughout the process?

Sydney Brown: What surprised me the most is how clear the themes are. I was expecting the government report I did my research on to be more neutral. What I found is that the government made explicit statements about choosing business interests over the interest of marginalized populations and ignored what those from the affected communities and those working with those communities were saying.

Jake Castro: I think the biggest surprise for me in the process of my undergraduate thesis was the effort involved in policy analysis. Considering there are no human participants to provide context to content analysis, there is some creativity involved in finding contextual information elsewhere.  For my project, it was challenging to find policy and supporting documents just in Canada alone, but since I did a comparative analysis, I had to find these documents in other countries as well. This also required an understanding of other corrections systems outside of our own. Searching for this information and literature in the field is a timely endeavor, so I would recommend future students anticipate and prepare for spending significant time researching and reading other material. Additionally, I was surprised by the emotional work involved with content analysis. There were reports and research I read that detailed tragic events, as much criminological and critical work does, which I had not expected ahead of time. However, that also demonstrates a further need for such work to address these serious harms.

Tell us about your experience showcasing your work at Innovations in Research:

Sydney Brown: It was a fun experience! I enjoyed being able to share my research with others, and although we could not be in person due to COVID-19, they made it as close to an in-person event as they could. We were able to go around and see other people’s work and speak to others about their research. I learned a lot from this experience.

Jake Castro: I am grateful I was accepted! Having a virtual exhibit amongst others in the SFU community with far more experience than me was intimidating. However, it was a valuable experience watching the presentations and viewing other exhibits; there is a lot of interesting critical work happening at SFU! Following the event, I feel more motivated towards my current graduate work, and I appreciate the chance to hear about research external to my subject area and issues I was not aware of.

Can you offer any reflections on the process of writing your thesis?

Sydney Brown: I enjoyed the process of writing my thesis. It was a ton of work, not only writing, but also editing it. All the hard work was worth it, as I had a finished project that I was very proud of and excited to share with others.

Jake Castro: If I were to write the honours thesis over again, I would have broken down the work more efficiently. Time is really of the essence when working on a thesis, and it is quite limited in the honours setting. I would recommend working individually on each chapter and thinking of each as individual interconnected papers, then setting deadlines for each one… and sticking to them! I was always a procrastinator in the undergraduate degree, so I would definitely recommend challenging that to future honours students. Another important suggestion: take time for self-care and hobbies outside of school and work. It is easy to become consumed with classes, a thesis, and work, so it is important to find other side passions and activities, especially in a field like criminology.

Would you recommend the Criminology Honours program to future students?

Sydney Brown: I would recommend the honours program to future students. I not only learned a lot about the research process, but also enjoyed the small cohort style that allowed me to make friends with other students and learn from their research process as well. I liked the freedom they gave us to decide what we wanted to do, but also gave us direction when we needed it.

Jake Castro: I would recommend the Criminology Honours program to students. Working closely with criminology faculty is a valuable experience as they provide guidance in the research process and in the steps to follow. The program is a minimal time commitment considering it is two semesters long and serves as a beneficial introduction to research, which was instrumental in my decision towards pursuing a graduate degree. Currently, I am in the collaborative Criminology and Feminist and Gender Studies Master’s program with the University of Ottawa, focusing on the policy of transgender persons in both institutional and community corrections. The skills and knowledge I gained in the honours program have helped me succeed in my current graduate work, so I am grateful for the experience.