Posts Tagged ‘memorial’

“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.”

– Lisa Guenther, “What is lost when we pave over a prison.” The Globe & Mail, July 6, 2018.

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P4W Memorial Garden – Solidarity Letter

March 21, 2018

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The P4W Memorial Collective requests your endorsement of our campaign to create a memorial garden to honour the women who died in the Kingston Prison for Women (P4W) on a small plot of land (12’ x 12’) adjacent to the front administration building.

Our Collective is composed of women from many different walks of life, but we have especially welcomed women with lived experience in prison or with connections to prisoners through community groups like E. Fry Kingston, the Native Sisterhood and Native Brotherhood, local religious ministries, and prisoner justice activism. Our main purpose is to honour the memory of women who died inside P4W, but we also want to raise awareness that, long after the closure of P4W, women are still dying in custody and suffering inhumane treatment in prisons across Canada.

The Federal Prison for Women in Kingston is one of the most notorious prisons in Canadian history. Just four years after it opened in 1934, the Archambault Report recommended its closure due to “disgraceful” conditions. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, experiments with LSD and electroconvulsive therapy were conducted on women at P4W, leading to a 1998 lawsuit against Dr. Mark Eveson (a Queen’s graduate). In 1964, a Queen’s M.A. student, Judith Martin, successfully defended a thesis on “Pain Tolerance and Narcotic Addiction” based on research on prisoners at P4W; she co-published the results of her research with Queen’s professor, James Inglis in 1965. In 1977, 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.  Between December 1988 and February 1991, seven women at the P4W committed suicide; six of these women were Indigenous. It was not until after Madame Justice Arbour’s 1994 condemnation of the disconnect between human rights, the rule of law and operational reality in P4W, that the process of transferring prisoners across the country to the six newly built institutions began in earnest.  The prison finally closed in 2000.

Seven years later, Queen’s University purchased the P4W site for a reported $2.8 million. The site is currently for sale, and we are concerned that it may be developed for commercial purposes that erase or trivialize its history. In 2016, Elizabeth Fry Kingston asked Queen’s if we could create a memorial garden at P4W, but the request was not honoured. In 2018, after ten years as the site’s owner, Queen’s University is uniquely situated to recognize the history of P4W and set aside land on site for a memorial garden. Given the University’s history of research on prisoners and its commitment to critical education and community engagement, and considering that the University has not paid taxes on this property—eight acres of prime real estate acquired at less than market value—Queen’s is well placed to fulfill it’s educational mandate and role as a good citizen.

The current silence of P4W’s abandoned architectural carcass is a betrayal of the histories it housed. The age and emptiness of the buildings can easily mislead passers by to think that the painful facts of women’s incarceration in Canada and the painful facts of colonization are things of the past. Indigenous people are the most marginalized, least secure, and the most incarcerated in Canada.  The links between these facts were made clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Report.  Recommendation 30 of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action says: “We call on federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.” This overrepresentation is especially acute for Indigenous women.  Since P4W closed, more Indigenous women have been imprisoned than any other segment of the population (increasing by 109% between 2001-2012). A memorial garden with art and educational panels acknowledging the connections between colonization, residential schools, violence against Indigenous women, and the lives and deaths of women incarcerated at P4W represents a unique opportunity for community engagement and public education. Moreover, it would contribute to Queen’s efforts to uphold its commitment to new nation-wide Principles on Indigenous Education.

Please join us in asking Queen’s University to create a memorial garden on the former site of the Prison for Women.  Add your name and/or organization to the signatories below, or send a letter of support to P4Wmemorialcollective@gmail.com by March 30, 2018, if possible (but later endorsements will also be accepted).  A simple affirmation of support is more than welcome, but we would love to hear more about why you think this project is important. What have we learned since the prison closed in 2000? What do women learn doing federal time? What is learned off their backs? How do we share the responsibility of honouring their memory? As the twentieth anniversary of the prison’s closure approaches, we are planning a nation-wide gathering to reflect on these and many other questions.

In solidarity,

The P4W Memorial Collective

Yessica Rivera Belsham
Founder and Executive Director, Circle of Wellness

Fran Chaisson
Formerly Incarcerated at P4W

Jacqueline Davies
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University

Lisa Guenther
Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies

Ann Hansen
Formerly Incarcerated at P4W

Linda Mussell
PhD Candidate in Political Studies, Queen’s University


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