Prisoners in Nova Scotia may soon have a new way to make their voices heard inside the prison system.

A group of legal and social justice advocates are meeting this month for the first time to discuss human rights issues faced by prisoners in Nova Scotia's provincial and federal prisons. 

The East Coast Prison Justice Society (ECPJS) was officially registered this month by eight individuals with diverse experiences in legal counseling and human rights advocacy. The roster includes three legal professionals, three from advocacy groups and two university professors.

"Right now, it's about increasing the public's skills and knowledge to provide more support for prisoners," said Emma Halpern, one of the society's directors. 

Halpern served as equity officer for the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society and is the new director for the Elizabeth Fry Society for Mainland Nova Scotia, another group advocating for women within the Nova Scotia justice system. 

Emma Halpern

Lawyer Emma Halpern hopes more lawyers with take interest in representing inmates. (Kristen Brown/CBC)

She said her group's goal is to identify and discuss the "gaps" within the justice system from as many perspectives as possible and provide the resources to correct them through education, scholarship, legal support, public and grass-roots services. 

It's a result of the relationships between the legal, academic and activist communities in Nova Scotia, said Halpern. Many had already been pooling and sharing resources for anyone that works with prisoners. She said the society's diversity provides a wide range of skills and interests that each can benefit from.

"For me," said Halpern, "it's about having access to other people who are interested in prison justice work and increasing the amount of lawyers interested in representing these people." 

prison-bars

Jennifer Metcalfe with the West Coast Prison Justice Society says the more prisoners rights are respected the more likely it is they will be able to be rehabilitated. (Shutterstock)

The group is taking notes from the work of the West Coast Prison Justice Society (WCPJS), based in Burnaby, B.C. It was registered in the early 1990s and has since developed into a full-time legal clinic for all federal and provincial prisoners in British Columbia.  

The WCPJS is the only fully-funded legal aid clinic in Canada, and employs five lawyers and two administrative staff. 

In just the last year, it's received more than 2,300 requests for assistance from prisoners in that province. Requests range from disciplinary charges to involuntary institutions transfers and parole suspensions. 

Jen Metcalfe, West Coast director and supervising lawyer, said the efforts have gone a long way for prisoners in the province. 

"We have a lot of small successes everyday," she said, adding that some efforts have had a lasting impact.

Last year, Correctional Service Canada changed its policies around inmates that identify as transgender. Metcalfe had filed a human rights complaint against the CSC while working with trans inmates.

"People don't hear from prisoners in society, so if we're able to give them a voice — that's a success in and of itself."

Jennifer Metcalfe

Jennifer Metcalfe is the supervising lawyer and director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society. (Submitted by Jennifer Metcalfe)

Metcalfe said she was excited to learn of an East Coast effort for prison justice and said their goals are the same: rehabilitation.

"Going to prison is the loss of your liberty, but prisoners retain all of their rights as citizens. If we treat prisoners unfairly while they're inside, they're going to come out resentful of their experience and that's not going to contribute to public safety."

The East Coast Prison Justice Society is holding its first annual general meeting at the end of the month.

Halpern said top-of-mind will be selecting a chairperson to focus efforts, and then the group will hear from other lawyers, judges and individuals who have experienced systemic issues while serving time.