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A Canadian flag flies outside the Kingston Prison for Women in February 1979.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Guenther is Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies. She is the author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives.

What do we remember as a society, and what – or whom – do we forget?

This week, Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson announced plans for what he called the “exciting redevelopment” of the former Prison for Women (P4W) by the developer ABNA Investment Ltd. For months, ABNA has been in negotiations with Queen’s University to buy the former prison, located at the edge of the downtown core and near Lake Ontario.

But not everyone is excited by the idea of turning a prison into a playground for the rich. Since moving to Kingston, I have been meeting regularly with a group of formerly incarcerated women and allies in a group called the P4W Memorial Collective.

The goal of the Collective is to create a memorial garden to honour the women who died in P4W. The group has organized healing circles, film screenings and a letter of solidarity with more than 200 signatories. But they have been largely shut out of meetings to discuss the future – and even the past – of P4W. Where are the voices and perspectives of formerly incarcerated women in the conversation about commercial development and heritage preservation? And where does the memorial garden fit into the plans for redevelopment?

Working with the P4W Memorial Collective has taught me a lot about the history of the prison, which was Canada’s only federal penitentiary for women from 1934-2000. That means no matter where you lived or where your support network was located, if you were a woman sentenced to two years or more in Canada, you would be sent to Kingston to serve your time.

Numerous reports acknowledge that conditions at P4W were harsher than most men’s prisons, including Kingston Penitentiary. Just four years after P4W opened in 1934, the Archambault Report recommended its closure owing to “disgraceful” conditions. More than 40 years later, the MacGuigan Report called for the closure of P4W once again, declaring the prison “unfit for bears, much less for women.” Still, the prison remained open.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, experiments with LSD and electroconvulsive therapy were conducted on women at P4W, leading to a 1998 lawsuit. Even after such controversial research ended and more ethical standards for research were implemented, professors and graduate students at Queen’s and other universities continued to learn from women incarcerated at P4W, often in ways that did not benefit the women themselves. Careers have been launched on the backs of incarcerated women, even as these women remained confined in a cold, decrepit institution. And if they died without family to bury them, their bodies were either buried in a nameless grave or donated to Queen’s Medical School for anatomy lessons.


Between December, 1988, and February, 1991, seven women committed suicide at P4W. Six of these women were Indigenous. A protest broke out in April, 1994, and was suppressed by an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team who stripped the women naked and left them shackled on the floor for six hours. The whole thing was caught on videotape and broadcast on The Fifth Estate. The final nail in the coffin for P4W was the Arbour Report in 1996, which led to the prison’s closure in 2000 and the creation of smaller, regionally based federal prisons for women.

Seven years after the closure of P4W, Queen’s University purchased the prison for a reported $2.8-million. Initially, the plan was to move the university archives into the former prison. But it turns out that a building unfit for bears is also unfit for valuable documents.

As Gayle K. Horii, a former prisoner at P4W, argued in a 1994 article called Disarm the Infamous Thing, the prison is a former site of state violence. But without a public memorial to acknowledge the women who lived and died at P4W, the prison is not visible as an “infamous thing.” It’s just another piece of real estate to be bought, sold and developed in response to the market’s demands.

We can do better than this. We must do better. Today, Indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the Canadian population, but more than 26 per cent of the total federal inmate population. The situation for Indigenous women is worse: They make up 37.6 per cent of the federal female inmate population, an increase of 109 per cent between 2001-12.

The links between colonization and the overincarceration of Indigenous people are made clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which calls on “federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.” But we cannot address this problem if we fail to confront our history.

P4W is not an exciting development opportunity. It is not just a heritage building. It is a former site of gender violence and settler colonial violence, and it should be publicly acknowledged as such. As residents of Kingston, we need to ask ourselves: Who do we want to become as a community? Are we willing to pave over the memory of generations of incarcerated women in order to generate profit for developers? Or are we willing to face a messy and difficult history, in conversation with the women whose lives and deaths were shaped by that history, in order to co-create a more just and equitable future? A memorial garden is not enough to answer these questions, but it is a place to start.