Prisoners’ Legal Services – How one local organization is changing the face of prison advocacy
The West Coast Prison Justice Society operates Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), the only program focused exclusively on prison-related legal advocacy in western Canada.
“Prisoners’ Legal Services is unique in Canada because we administer all prison legal aid in our jurisdiction, other than appeals”, says Jen Metcalfe, Executive Director and Supervising Lawyer. “This allows our office to speak with over 1,000 people in prison each year, to gain a deeper understanding of the issues affecting people in prison, and to work for systemic change to reduce suffering.”
In late 2020 the Society published a Law Foundation-funded report entitled “Solitary by Another Name” which examines how Correctional Service Canada continues to use isolation even after the elimination of administrative segregation, and the effects of these practices on prisoners’ liberty rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The report details how the use of isolation practices can cause psychological harm to vulnerable people in federal prisons who often already struggle with mental health challenges, substance use, or histories of trauma and poverty. These practices include lockdowns, restrictive movement routines, and use of isolation to manage prisoners with mental health challenges.
While researching the report, PLS heard from clients who contributed stories and reflections from their own lived experience with prison isolation practices. PLS spoke with 231 clients incarcerated at the Kent Institution in the year leading up to the report’s publication.
Their stories were poignant and often detailed harrowing feelings of anxiety, panic, and hopelessness. Clients shared their stories with the hopes of contributing to something broader. PLS has developed a high level of trust with their clients and a reputation for treating people in prison with dignity, and so, while contributing to the report, clients knew they were speaking to people who were serious about helping them, and were taking action to identify systemic issues in order to change policies.
PLS does face some unique obstacles in their day-to-day operations, however. Due to the strict regimen in prisons, clients can only call PLS during limited timeframes, and may have to deal with interruptions from guards and other incarcerated people. Because of the pandemic, some prisons experienced lockdowns which meant even further restrictions and the stop of in-person info fairs where PLS used to distribute resources. During this time, PLS has advocated for clients to be allowed out of their cells, and has continued to provide legal services by phone in addition to providing written materials to clients.
Nicole Kief, PLS’s Legal Advocate, explains why this work is so important: “As Angela Davis has observed, prisons disappear people, not problems. As a legal advocate at PLS, I am lucky to work alongside people who, despite the dehumanizing conditions they are forced to live in, show kindness, love, humour, and a commitment to justice not only for themselves but for all incarcerated people. I hope PLS’ work can publicly affirm the fundamental human rights and dignity of people in prison.”