Kathy Ferreira, Law’01, is the first to admit that prisoners are not always viewed as the most ‘sympathetic’ group.

Yet, after first experiencing what it was like to work with prisoners in Kingston-area institutions during her legal studies at Queen’s, she has dedicated her career to protecting the rights of prisoners through the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic (QPLC).

In this interview, Ferreira – now the clinic’s Director – talks about the important work of the QPLC, and how it works.

Queen’s Prison Law Clinic in numbers:

  • The QPLC team includes three staff lawyers, 18 students in Prison Law class, four in LAW-419 (Advanced Prison Law), one articling student, an Indigenous Justice Coordinator, and administrative staff.
  • This academic year, the QPLC has worked on more than 176 disciplinary court and 66 Parole Board files.
  • LAW-419 students have assisted with two interventions to the Supreme Court of Canada, an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal, and six judicial review applications to the Federal Court.

Tell us more about how you got started with the clinic.

I started working with the clinic as a student in 2000-01, and returned as a staff lawyer in 2003. I didn’t expect that I would return to Kingston – close to where I grew up – but when the opportunity came to return to Kingston and practice I jumped at it. It is a good fit and I enjoy working with the clients. 

If you speak to any Queen’s Law students who work with the Prison Law Clinic, they will tell you the same thing: after meeting with the clients, it is easy to see that the work you are doing is important. They are extremely grateful for the help we provide. 

When I was a student, I was involved in cases at Kingston Penitentiary, which had a very busy disciplinary court. I was fortunate to have a Parole Board hearing where the Parole Board was deciding whether to keep a prisoner inside for the duration of his sentence. In fact, I still have clients from my student days.

If you work in this area of law, you understand very quickly that most prisoners come from difficult circumstances. Between the cases and the relationships you form, it is very satisfying work.

Why should the rights and treatment of prisoners matter to all of us?

As Nelson Mandela said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” The treatment of prisoners is the litmus test for a society’s commitment to human rights.  The treatment of prisoners matters because all people – even those who break the law – have inherent value, and it matters because an unjust prison system further alienates people from society and the law and perpetuates lawless behaviour. 

Most prisoners will be joining society again. If they aren’t being treated fairly and getting access to appropriate services while inside, it doesn’t bode well for their success once they are released. A fair and humane treatment of prisoners inside leads to more positive outcomes back to the community, which makes for safer communities, and we all care about that.

Tell us about the clinic.

The clinic is a not-for-profit with a small board, including members of the Faculty of Law, Senator Kim Pate, and Graham Stewart – the former Executive Director of John Howard Society of Canada. We are funded by Legal Aid Ontario.

The clinic includes three lawyers, one articling student, 18 students enrolled in LAW-418 (Clinical Prison Law), and four students enrolled in our pilot Advanced Prison Law course (LAW-419). We also have one volunteer and have recently added a part-time Indigenous Justice Coordinator staff position.

Richard Sauvé is the QPLC’s new Indigenous Justice Coordinator.
Richard Sauvé is the QPLC’s new Indigenous Justice Coordinator. 

The latter role was identified as a need in recent years to reach out to a demographic that is overrepresented in Canadian prisons. A number of other legal clinics have added a similar position in recent years and found it beneficial. This person will help with prisoner releases back to Indigenous communities, and serve as a community worker who can reach out to Elders and groups within the institutions to identify needs.

We have one staff lawyer, Paul Quick (Law’09), who is dedicated to our litigation efforts at the clinic. This work addresses systemic injustices against prisoners and helps ensure fairness at the tribunals we appear before. With the help of the experienced students in the Advanced Prison Law course, we can take on more cases than would otherwise be possible.  

Our team represents prisoners at disciplinary hearings and Parole Board hearings, and advocates for their rights in prison, including for appropriate health care. Our service area includes the Kingston-area prisons and goes as far west as Warkworth – between Belleville and Peterborough. Our staff lawyer, Nancy Brar (Law’16), handles the busy caseload at Warkworth Institution and has a particular interest in advocating for human rights in the institutions.

Though there are other legal clinics doing prison law in Canada, our model is unique. We are a legal aid specialty clinic. We are affiliated with the law school and our sister clinics at Queen’s Law. We engage in both front-line tribunal advocacy and litigation at the Federal Court, Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.

How the clinic works – a look at Parole Board hearings

Our core funding is for disciplinary court and Parole Board hearings, and other prison-related concerns. 

We help prisoners prepare for their Parole Board hearings, and may also assist them at their hearing. Parole Board hearings are about an hour, so prisoners have a short time to ‘be more than what is said about them on paper’. 

The purpose of preparation is to ensure the prisoner is not taken by surprise and is able to fully respond to the board’s questions and concerns about risk management. The prisoner should understand the extent of the questions the Board will ask about their record, not just their current offending. 

During their hearing, the board will spend time discussing their institutional behaviour and progress while incarcerated – both positives and negatives. They will also discuss the prisoner’s release plan to ensure the risk is going to be manageable. 

If the prisoner is considered a good candidate for parole, the plan must be investigated to make a good decision. The board will hear from the prisoner, and consider feedback from the community, their parole officer, and others before deciding on whether to deny parole or to grant partial (day) or full parole.

For example, if an inmate calls us several months before a hearing, they might see us monthly for an hour at a time. We are not limited to a set amount of time, unlike hours on a legal aid certificate. If we have less notice, the case might go to the articling student.

How do you determine who you help?

We typically help with all disciplinary court requests unless we have a conflict. We provide advice on prison-related issues to all who ask. We help those who are reasonable candidates for parole, and the more serious cases where we can have a greater impact. 

For instance, we work with Indigenous prisoners, those with mental health conditions, and those serving life sentences. Lifers tend to make strong candidates for parole as they have a statistically low rate of recidivism.

We also focus on prisoners who cannot afford their own legal representation. 

What are some trends and changes you have seen since you started working in prison law?

Segregation – or solitary confinement – of prisoners has been overused since I was a student and before. It is only recently that the Correctional Service of Canada started to take some steps to move away from it, in part due to anticipated changes in the legislation. 

There has been a lot of attention on this practice as it is clear it can cause serious and lasting psychological harm after only a few days. It still does exist and the concern is that it will likely replicate itself by another name as a means of isolating prisoners. 

While I believe the legislation may read as kinder and gentler, I expect it will probably still be rife for abuse. Without independent oversight, the prisons will always put security and resource claims ahead of prisoners’ well-being.

What is on your radar for the years ahead?

The first is ensuring appropriate care of elderly prisoners and having prisoners with disabilities being accommodated while in jail. 

On the same thread, compassionate releases are not happening although the provisions are in place. This would be instances where the prisoner is dying and is not a risk to public safety.

Secondly, ensuring mentally ill prisoners are able to transfer to community mental health or psychiatric facilities to help their recovery. Prisons are not well equipped for this purpose.

A third would be access to postsecondary education. Most colleges and universities are moving away from paper to the internet, but prisoners don’t have access to the internet. They need to be able to pursue skills while behind bars to help their successful return to the community. 

There are so many free educational resources available on line, technological change is accelerating, and digital skills are becoming more essential every day. By not allowing any access to the online world, even for very limited purposes, our prison system makes it quite difficult for people to transition back to life in the community.

By Phil Gaudreau