On a sunny summer’s day, a group of visitors is gathered under a high limestone wall, waiting to explore one of Canada’s most notorious prisons. Tours of the Kingston Penitentiary, which closed in 2013, have proved hugely popular, drawing tourists from around the world and providing more than $1-million to the local United Way.
There is no crowd across the street at another limestone building, which is nearly as imposing but lacking in gun towers. Perhaps tourists walk past this abandoned building and wonder if it was an asylum, or a girls’ school. They might ask a local and be told that this, for 66 years, was the place where hundreds of Canadians were incarcerated, and where some died: the Prison for Women, more commonly known as P4W.
Despite its once-fearsome reputation – a 1977 government report called it “unfit for bears, much less women” – P4W has fallen out of the public imagination since it was closed in 2000. Now, the site is on the verge of redevelopment and a small group of former inmates and academics is fighting to keep alive the memory of the women who lived and died there.
What the women of the P4W Memorial Collective would like is some physical remembrance that the site, recently bought by a local developer from Queen’s University, has a unique history. “It should be a place where people can come and respect our fallen sisters, and pray and be at one with them, or whatever they need to do,” says Fran Chaisson, a member of the collective, who served two terms in P4W. “The healing is very important, because if you don’t heal from an institution, you’ll end up back in it.”
Ms. Chaisson is sitting at a lakeside café, only a few hundred metres from the abandoned hulk of P4W, alongside her friend and former P4W inmate Ann Hansen. They’re meeting with two professors from Queen’s University who are also members of the collective, Lisa Guenther and Jackie Davies.
The women’s memories of their incarcerations are fresh, vivid and complex. Ms. Chaisson, who was imprisoned in 1973 on charges of assault and a decade later for attempted murder, remembers helping cut down a friend who had tried to hang herself. Ms. Chaisson, too, tried to kill herself after being put into segregation: She had been awake for five nights, unable to sleep because of the screams of the other prisoners. “There were too many horrific things going through my mind,” she says now. “I was caught like an animal in a cage and the walls kept coming in.” She tried to hang herself, and only regained consciousness when the guards cut her down and her head hit the concrete floor.
Seven women in P4W killed themselves in a three-year span beginning in 1988; six of them were Indigenous. Ms. Chaisson and Ms. Hansen knew all of them. Ms. Hansen, who was convicted of crimes committed with the anarchist group called Direct Action or the Squamish Five, remembers one inmate friend who was meeting with her father at P4W. The woman got up, left the meeting and hanged herself. Her father found her.
And this is what they want to remember: the pain felt by the prisoners, which continues to this day (women make up the fastest-growing segment of the federal prison population in Canada, and Indigenous women the largest proportion of that). They would like the memorial to be a living thing, perhaps a garden, both for a sense of calm and solace and also for its metaphorical value: Suffering is alive, too.
The challenge with a memorial is that it can give a sense of nostalgia, like this is just a morbid spectacle from the past. I see that in the fascination with KP [Kingston Penitentiary]. People think we’ve come such a long way, and we haven’t.— Ann Hansen, former inmate at the Kingston Prison for Women
“The challenge with a memorial is that it can give a sense of nostalgia, like this is just a morbid spectacle from the past,” Ms. Hansen says. “I see that in the fascination with KP [Kingston Penitentiary]. People think we’ve come such a long way, and we haven’t.”
The most immediate challenge is to have the City of Kingston and the company that plans to develop the site, ABNA Investments Ltd., agree to a memorial in the first place. The signs are promising: The memorial collective has meetings scheduled with ABNA, and Kingston’s mayor, Bryan Paterson, agrees in principle. “Kingston is a city with a lot of history, and we’ve embraced the idea of telling all the stories of that history,” he says. “Sometimes those stories have not been told to the same degree. … So this is an opportunity for an exciting redevelopment, but to redevelop in a sensitive way that points to the past.” (Executives at ABNA did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperson earlier told Global News that the company “definitely will pay homage” to the site’s past.)
There are other hurdles to face, as well – the site is contaminated to some degree, and P4W is designated as a “recognized heritage building.” To date, what little discussion there has been about the future of P4W has revolved around its architectural significance.
This emphasis annoys the women of the collective. Ms. Davies visited the prison often while teaching courses such as women’s studies to the inmates: “A lot of the conversations have been about the architecture, which is not unimportant. But what’s more important is the human history that site has, all the stories. I feel it viscerally when I walk past, I remember the women who were there. There were students of mine who died in there, so I can’t walk by without feeling the power of that.”
Almost from the time it opened, Prison for Women was recommended for closure. It was built by inmates from Kingston Penitentiary – where women had been incarcerated alongside men for a hundred years – and opened in 1934. Four years later, the Archambault report recommended its closing, and a dozen others over the years came to similar conclusions, citing poor treatment and facilities, as well as the fact that, as the only federal women’s prison, its inmates were taken from across the country, often far from their families and support systems.
By the time Ms. Hansen arrived in 1984, changes had been made to improve women’s conditions. The Native Sisterhood was allowed to conduct healing ceremonies and hold support meetings. Tourist buses still drove by, pointing out the place where “the most dangerous women in Canada live,” but inside inmates were working in the beauty parlour and woodworking shop. In many ways, Ms. Hansen says, it was a warm community: “The bonds you had with the other women were very powerful. We’d have some fun times, we’d be laughing and singing. We were living in a void, and we filled that void with our relationships.”
But there were also women killing themselves, and being driven to despair in segregation. The Canadian public became aware of what was going on behind the stone walls in 1995, after a flashpoint conflict the previous year led to a national conversation.
It began with a confrontation over medication between a small group of women and staff. There was a hostage-taking, and the women were placed in segregation. A male emergency-response team – which the inmates called “the goon squad” – arrived from Kingston Penitentiary. The female inmates were strip-searched by the team, a degrading ordeal that was caught on video and broadcast on CBC’s The Fifth Estate. In the ensuing uproar, Justice Louise Arbour was appointed to investigate the conflict. She released a report in 1996 condemning conditions at P4W as “cruel and inhumane.”
Four years later, the prison was closed. Queen’s University bought the property seven years after that, with speculation that it would be turned into a dorm or a storage for archives. Last year, a group interested in prison history and reform proposed that the building be turned into a women’s history museum, but Queen’s didn’t go for the idea. Recently, it accepted ABNA’s offer, although it is unclear what form the redevelopment would take.
So, for nearly 20 years P4W sat, forgotten and abandoned. Across the street, Kingston Penitentiary also closed, but tourists lined up outside its doors, curious to see the jail that housed some of the country’s most infamous criminals – and perhaps not realizing that it once imprisoned women and girls, some as young as 9.
The causes and consequences of women’s incarceration didn’t disappear along with P4W. In the 10 years since 2007, for example, the number of federally sentenced women has grown by 30 per cent; for Indigenous women, it’s 60 per cent. Many of those women will have come into prison experiencing mental-health issues and physical abuse, and as the federal corrections Ombudsman, Ivan Zinger, pointed out in a 2017 report, prisons are failing women with serious mental-health issues.
On Friday, the P4W Memorial Collective will gather for their annual healing ceremony outside the walls that once locked them in. They’ll be thinking about the building, and how it can be used to remember the women who did not make it out, and those who are inside other walls.
“That’s why we need a memorial,” Ms. Hansen says, “to show that this is not in the past. It’s still going on.”