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Hanna Garson

Lawyer tries to do more than just pay ‘lip service’ to prisoners’ rights

Tuesday, July 16, 2019 @ 9:41 AM | By Donalee Moulton

Hanna Garson has always been interested in how society is structured and its ability — or inability — to put in place systems that work fairly and effectively for everyone. With this philosophy well entrenched, Garson entered law school at Dalhousie University four years ago knowing she would inevitably gravitate to criminal law and sentencing. What she didn’t know was that the issue of prisoner rights would become a driving force in her personal and professional life.

While in law school, Garson became involved with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, which assists women involved in the criminal justice system. She worked in the areas of women’s wellness and reintegration into the community. While volunteering with the society, she served as the primary author for their booklet Human Rights in Action: A Handbook for Women in Provincial Jails in Nova Scotia.

Hanna Garson

Hanna Garson, Planetta Hughes LLP

Garson also saw the prison system up close. “I got to see firsthand where the gaps were located with service provision and issues with the law,” she said in an interview.

Legally incarceration should not be about imposing unnecessary restrictions or punishment on the offender, but rather ensuring a balance between protecting society and penalizing the individual, noted Garson, now a lawyer with Planetta Hughes LLP in Halifax. “With the Elizabeth Fry Society, I saw this was lip service.”

While conditions were often dreadful for women and access to services severely limited, Garson learned that overall women in prison fared better than their male counterparts. This realization — and reality — led to her becoming a founding member, and current chair, of the newly formed East Coast Prison Justice Society. The goal of the organization is to act as a hub for individuals and organizations such as John Howard Society and Nova Scotia Legal Aid to collectively work towards decarceration. “We are compelled to do this,” said Garson, who primarily volunteers her work with prisoners.

The first step to improving conditions for prisoners is oversight. “To do any effective change,” Garson noted, “we need to know what is going on in our prisons.”

“We want to follow up to ensure the rule of law is followed behind prison walls,” she added. “Today it is a black hole.”

Part of the problem is undoubtedly resources, but resources are allocated to the things, and the people, a society cares about, said Garson, author of Habeas Corpus in Nova Scotia, An Accessible Guide. She pointed to the well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, where students assumed roles as either prison guards or prisoners, as an example of how prisoners can easily be mistreated and dismissed. “This is a systemic issue.”

For a lot of prisoners, it is also an issue of mental well-being. “Many don’t have great mental health and don’t have access to resources that will let them function well when they get out of prison,” noted Garson.

“Mental health concerns,” she added, “are often dismissed until [individuals] feel they are in a state of crisis.”

If oversight is a necessary first step to improving conditions for prisoners, using information gleaned from that oversight is the second step. “The data will help understand what is really going on. The government doesn’t often make changes based on anecdote,” said Garson.

Two matters are paramount in Nova Scotia, she noted. First, are health concerns, both physical and psychological. Restrictions related to lockdown and prison confinement are also a top priority.

Access to justice is a critical concern as well. Most incarcerated individuals rely on legal aid before they enter the prison system, but it is rare for these services to be available once someone is incarcerated. As a result, most prisoners are self-represented. “I get emergency phone calls from men in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick who are dealing with very real crises. I say I can only provide summary advice,” said Garson. “It sucks.”

For Garson, who is only a year out of law school, her work with prisoners is a steep learning curve. “It’s a big walk up a very tall mountain.” The prisoners rights advocate isn’t sure what the legal landscape will look like when she reaches the top of that mountain, perhaps decades from now. Only one thing is certain: nothing will keep her from the trek.