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Posts Tagged ‘interview with an ex-prisoner’

“Strap Mercer Riot Leaders, Says Official,” Toronto Star. July 19, 1948. Page 01.

Ringleaders in the Mercer reformatory riot were strapped, A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions, said today. He was commenting on the statement of a woman in police court today that prisoners ‘were beaten black and blue’ and tear gas used.

Asked if this was correct, Mr. Virgin said he was not going to deny or confirm it, but that ‘we do not hesitate to use tear gas whenever we find it necessary.’

There has been no more trouble at Guelph, he added. He said the men are working hard and those kept in the exercise yard and dormitories are punishment for a demonstration agaisnt the food ‘seemed sorry they had caused trouble.’

Lights in the whole of Ontario reformatory were blazing at 11 o’clock last night, but there was no trouble, Mr. Virgin stated. He said lights usually were out at 10 p.m. Passengers on a train that passes near the reformatory said it was unusual to see the lights on at such a late hour.

‘I just got out of the Mercer last Friday,’ the woman, Lillian Johnson, 50, said in police court, when charged with being drunk, ‘and my nerves were shot after the riots.’

After a list of previous drunk convictions was read by the court clerk, Magistrate Elmore imposed sentence of 40 days.

‘You can’t send me back there,’ said the woman. ‘Why didn’t they print the truth about how we were beaten and given tear gas. I wasn’t in the riot, but I saw those girls beaten black and blue.’

A police matron and a court policeman struggled with accused several minutes before removing her to the cells.

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“Warns Burwash Powder Keg, Trouble Deep-Seated – ‘Food Badly Served’  – Says Dunbar Should Go See For Himself,” Toronto Star. July 5, 1948. Page 21.

‘Burwarsh is a powder keg and it is going to blow up any day if conditions are not improved. They are even worse than they were before the trouble last October,’ said a prisoner just released. He said he was in both riots and claimed that the prisoners have banded together and are waiting their chance to stage an even bigger demonstration than the other two.

Dunbar Should Visit
‘Mr. Dunbar (Hon. George Dunbar, minister of reform institutions) should go up himself and talk to the prisoners and he would get an earful of what is going on,’ said the ex-inmate. ‘They told us he was coming up during the last trouble but he has never been there.

‘Food is the principal cause of the trouble,’ he claimed. ‘It’s not so much what is served, but how it is served. It is rank and cold. The same food could be cooked up in a style that would satisfy the men, but the attitude is take it or leave it.’

He declared that since the riot of last October there had been numerous hunger strikes of two or three days’ duration. When the men protested the menu, he stated, the superintendent Ralph Ayers would taste the food and say there was nothing wrong with it. Then they would have to eat it or go hungry.

‘The men work hard in the fields and need substantial food,’ he said. ‘They aren’t getting it and they are not going to work. The crops will rot in the fields and the temper of the prisoners is such that they are talking about burning the buildings and firing the fields in protest so that the public can learn what conditions are.

Raps Parole System
‘Another sore spot is the sysem of parole. This was one of the things that caused the first riot. The parole board comes to Burwash the second Wednesday in every month. They run through 100 prisoners each time. Then days later the prisoner will get a letter saying he does or does not get parole. The feeling is that the matter is settled before they come before the board.

‘Guards are going and coming all the time. They don’t pay them enough for them to stay. Some are minors. They are supposed to be trained but they don’t know how to handle men. Since they were given power of police officers to make arrests, their job has gone to their heads and they are pushing the prisoners around to show their authority.

He said after the investigation by Prof. Stuart Jaffary of the University of Toronto after the first riot, conditions improved. ‘But everything is going back to the way it was before. There is going to be serious trouble and someone might be killed.’

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“Mercer Has Strap, Dungeon – Girls Seek Death – Ex-Inmate,” Toronto Star. June 26, 1948. Page 02.

“It’s unbelievable what’s going on in Mercer reformatory,” Mrs. Daisy Hoffman of Ontario St. said today. She said she was released at 2 p.m. Friday after serving two months on a liquor charge. ‘It’s a torture chamber,’ she said. ‘The proof girls suffer terribly.’

Mrs. Hoffman gave the girls’ side of the story emphasizing their cruel treatment. ‘On June 16,’ she said, ‘a 19-year-old girl, named Agnes, who has a seven-month-old baby there with her, got 18 straps across her back and shoulders. They told her they would take away her baby. The same day another girl who was 17 years old was given 12 straps for a slight disturbance. Both girls were put in the dungeons on Monday. These are dark rooms in the basement with no windows or light, with cement floors. The girls sleep on iron bars – there are no beds. They only get one blanket. The water they use is rusty.

Says Two Try to Suicide
‘After being strapped, Helen – the 17-year-old girl – was brought to her room and the next day was sent to work. All her recreation was taken away and she is allowed no visitors. Agnes was in the dungeon until Friday and went to work that morning at the reformatory factory. While working at a power sewing machine she tried to commit suicide by plunging needles into her wrists.’

Mrs. Hoffman went on to say that another girl of 16, from Ottawa, had a fight on Friday – a week ago Friday – and was put in the dungeons last Sunday. ‘She was told that she would get a strapping the next day. On Sunday she cut her arm with a cup – trying to commit suicide. She was given no hospital attention at al. On Monday, as scheduled, she got 14 straps.

Thrown Downstairs
Mrs. Hoffman told what she saw during the riot yesterday and how it came about. ‘Wednesday evening,’ she said, ‘the girls went in a ‘squealer,’ slit her face and beat her. One of the matrons grabbed one of them and started chocking her. There was 10 matrons against this one girl. Another girl cried out the window ‘Help! A girl is chocking.’ A matron grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. The matron threw seven pails of cold water on her to revive her and took her to the dungeon. That night the girls planned a riot because they had all been threatened with the strap. 

‘Yesterday, the girls wouldn’t go to work they had a sitdown strike in the dining hall. When a matron came, the girls threw the dishes around and somebody pulled the fire alarm.’

Pulling Girls By Hair
Mrs. Hoffman said she had been confined to her room for six weeks. She was not allowed out at all. ‘I thought the place was on fire when I heard the alarm,’ she said. ‘I started to cry for help and a matron told me that it was not a fire but that she would let me out. I saw the detectives pulling the girls by the hair. Most of the girls were bleeding but only one detective had blood on his face. I saw a detective knock a girl down in the floor which was covered with broken dishes, and a matron told him: ‘You can’t hit her like that’. He released her then but knocked another one down. I told a matron that she was wonderful.’

No Fresh Air in Seven Weeks
Mrs. Hoffman said she had memorized messages from the girls to their parents. She could not carry out written messages because ‘I would be searched and then the girls would be strapped.’

Concerning her own treatment, Mrs. Hoffman said: ‘I had been locked for six weeks in my room. I was kicked around and threatened, but I am too old for strapping, so I did not care. I had no fresh air for seven weeks. All the exercise I had was walking to the bathroom. I lost 25 pounds in two months. The food was bad ‘and the meat smelled nearly, all the time.’

Mrs. Hoffman told of two other girls who received severe treatment. One was handcuffed with her hands behind her back for three days, according to Mrs. Hoffman. ‘The cuffs were so tight that her arms were all swollen,’ she said. ‘A nurse called the doctor and she took the handcuffs off. Later a matron beat Margaret.’

‘Another girl,’ said Mrs. Hoffman, ‘was put in her room for several days, when she was told she would have to stay twenty days longer than her sentence called for. The girl had started crying and she was ordered into her room for solitary confinement. The girl was due to leave the reformatory on July 27.’

Mrs. Hoffman told of the experiences in the reformatory. ‘They told me they were going to keep me indefinitely if I did not apologize and work for the Matron who had kicked me.’ Mrs. Hoffman had an argument with this matron and was ordered to apologize. ‘I did not apologize,’ she said. ‘I told them they could not break the law and that I would only work when I was treated like a human being. Whenever we complained the matrons said it was government order.’

Would Be Cautious
‘I do not know Mrs. Hoffman’s record, but I would be very cautious about accepting her charges as facts,’ said A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions, today. ‘There has never been criticism against the superintendent of Mercer reformatory concerning cruelty to prisoners,’ he continued.

‘The fact that for years there has never been trouble indicates that the institution has been run efficiently,’ he said. ‘Certainly, anything that appear to be severe treatment is inquired into immediately.’ 

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