A career in the corrections field led Ibrahim Turay to ask two important questions – what are the experiences that lead to Black youths being overrepresented in the Canadian justice system, and what can be done to help those young people before they ever enter the system?
To help get those answers, Turay, now an instructor and researcher at Lethbridge College, went to those who know best – the youth themselves.
“The goal was to promote an idea of motivational interviewing, where you can see the person you're working with has been the expert of their own situation,” says Turay. “They have a direct view of their situation, so they can direct you to what would work for them in terms of helping them to stay out of gangs and so on. It’s the same thing as working with any expert, you collaborate with them and ask them questions so they can tell you what they think would be useful for them.”
Turay began his research while completing a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Alberta, and he is continuing his work while pursuing a PhD in Cultural, Social and Political Thought from the University of Lethbridge, where he is exploring Black youths’ interpretation of their interactions with and perceptions of the police in Southern Alberta. He is now an instructor in the School of Justice Studies at Lethbridge College, teaching classes in Management in Justice Organizations, Conflict Management, Correctional Practices, Correctional Assessment/Classification, Correctional Casework, and Counselling and Criminology.
One topic he heard many times from his interviews was how interactions with police shape experiences of Black youth. He says practices such as carding (stopping, questing and collecting information from an individual when no offense has been committed) lead to distrust, disparities in the criminal justice system and social disadvantages for those who now find themselves documented in the police system.
“The problem is the next time you have contact with the police, your information is already in the system, even though it wasn’t as a result of you being involved in any criminal activity,” says Turay. Research has shown Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) individuals are carded more than other groups, leading to disparate treatment by law enforcement. Police services say carding is used as an investigative and crimefighting tool. “You can see how this idea of preventing crime and public safety is often used as an excuse to have a practice that Black people have always been specifically targeted by,” says Turay.
Turay says there are opportunities for improvement in the criminal justice system, but they are multifaceted and must take place at many levels. He says police services should review their current practices and investigate the history of how those practices have been used and how they affect BIPOC people. He also says more investment in community building services is necessary so issues don’t become a policing matter, but are instead solved with additional resources such as housing, financial, addiction and mental health supports. And he says police officers should receive training to help identify how their actions are perceived by those they interact with.
“Sometimes they’re not aware of those histories and how they are going to influence how a Black person or how an Indigenous person may react to them,” says Turay. “For me, that's where my role comes in, and why I am in an educational institution – to help change future police officers, correctional officers and border agents by making them aware of the history that Black and Indigenous people are aware of already.”
Turay says ultimately, police officers need to know more about the people in the communities where they work, and he includes that vital lesson when he is teaching students in the college’s Criminal Justice program.
“Police officers should be willing to learn about the people they are working with,” says Turay. “It’s a willingness to listen, a willingness to hear the people's stories that they're sharing with you and be nonjudgmental, validate people's experiences and not deny their experiences.”
Turay has worked in a variety of roles in the corrections field, including as a correctional officer, correctional service worker and senior probation officer before coming to teach at the college in 2015. He has been the leading force in Lethbridge College’s Black History Month celebrations since 2017.