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Posts Tagged ‘women’s prison’

“Wildfires
have been raging ferociously in California this year. According to
meteorologist Craig Clements at San Jose University, wildfires have also
been much larger than usual. Fire seasons typically run from May to
November in northern California, Napa Valley and Sonoma counties. In the
summer, 100-degree temperatures dry out the grass, and droughts add to
the problem.

In 2017, fires in California were the deadliest since
the beginning of record keeping, with 100,000 people forced to evacuate
and around 75,000 displaced when their homes and businesses were
destroyed. It took more than 11,000 firefighters to battle those blazes.

Officially,
at least 35 to 40 percent of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting force,
are prison inmate crews, and the number may be even higher. ‘‘Any fire
you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews
make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,’’
says Lt. Keith Radey, a commander in charge of one of the inmate fire
camps.

About 4,000 inmates each week
fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters. That number includes
approximately 250 women. There are 43 inmate firefighting camps. The
three camps for women were opened in 1983.

In the fires, women
wear either yellow or orange fire-retardant suits, helmets and
handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and necks. Each one carries 50 to 60
pounds of gear and equipment in her backpack, and some also carry
chainsaws. Crews of 14 people each fight on the front lines.

Firefighting
is dangerous, grinding work requiring endurance and includes injuries
and some deaths. Prison crews in California firefighting bring to mind
chain gangs without the chains.

Prison labor and fires

In 1946, the Conservation Camp Program began using
prison labor to fight deadly fires, under the joint supervision of the
Division of Forestry and the Department of Correction, and later under
the supervision of the California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Nowadays, California’s institutionalized
inmates make license plates, prison uniforms, office furniture for state
employees and anything else the prison may need. They usually earn
between 8 cents and 95 cents per hour.

But inmates in the forestry
program are paid more to fight fires. They can make up to $2.56 a day
in camp, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires, though during training
they may be paid nothing at all.

In comparison, full-time civilian firefighter salaries start around $40,000 yearly or $17 per hour minimum.

In
2014, when California courts took up the issue of overcrowded prisons,
the state attorney general’s office argued against shrinking the number
of inmates because prisoners were needed to fight fires. In 2015, Gov.
Jerry Brown agreed. Other states use prisoner firefighters, but not
nearly on the scale that California does.

Most California inmates
volunteer to fight fires. They must pass a fitness test, and then they
receive as little as three weeks’ training, compared to a three-year
apprenticeship for full-time civilian firefighters.

Prisoners
fighting fires are serving terms for nonviolent, low-level crimes, such
as drug or alcohol-related offenses. Volunteers have to earn the right
to be chosen for “rehabilitation work.” High risks are involved, but
they earn more money than in other prison jobs — in a less violent
atmosphere, in more physical space than a prison cell offers. The risks
are weighed against the same amount of time served inside a correctional
facility.

At-risk women prisoners
Women
prisoners interviewed have given a range of feelings about being in the
forestry program. At firefighters’ camp, they have woodworking areas,
softball fields and libraries. They enjoy being outdoors and having
barbecues with family visits. Children see their parents in a camp
environment rather than inside a restricted prison.

And women may
get to see their children on the outside sooner because their sentences
are reduced due to firefighting credit. For every day they are in a
camp, their sentence is reduced by one day. Some women provide this
labor for years. They resent the hardship and intense physical labor,
but say it is worth the risk.

Since women in the firefighting
camps are available 24 hours a day for work, they are considered a
“resource” for the state. California’s firefighting program saves
taxpayers close to $100 million each year, according to the CDCR. The
cost for housing each inmate in a prison facility is $76,000 a year, as
opposed to using them to fight blazes.

– Dolores Cox, “In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes.” Workers World. July 29, 2018

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“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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“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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“Women’s Jail Here Shuts Doors, Refusing to Accept Prisoners,” Montreal Gazette. July 3, 1948. Page 03.

The Fullum Street Women’s Jail closed its doors last night, and, for perhaps the first time in its history, refused to accept prisoners.

The unprecendented move by both the Catholic and Protestant authorities of the institution came about when 10 female prisoners from the cells of the Montreal Police Department were refused transfer to the jail, quashing a custom practiced for many years.

Cessation of a contract with the Provincial Government and failure of new negotiations to materialize were the reasons unofficially cited as the cause of the ‘closed door’ reception.

The jail is divided into two sections. One is operated by sisters of a Catholic order, the other by Protestant organizations. Although the jail is a provincial jail, it is apparently operated through contracts which provide for salaries, overhead and other administration items.

Asst. Dir. J. A. Belanger, of the Montreal police department, said that the move came as a surprise to the department and that they were forced to re-accommodate the 10 prisoners in police cells.

The police official said that authorities of the jail had declared that their contract with the Provincial Government had expired and that they would not accept any more prisoners.

There were rumors last night that authorities of the jail had set July 1 as an ultimatum in new negotiations with the province and that failure of the government to meet the new commitments resulted in the action taken.

The closing of the jail presents a serious problem to local police departments which are neither accommodated nor authorized by law to hold prisoners in their own cells following either a jail sentence or in between court appearances.

Last night, the Prisoner’s Department of the city police transported 12 women to the women’s jail. Only two, who had been released from the institution to police custody for court appearance, were re-admitted The other 10 were refused entrance.

An official of the jail contaced by The Gazette last night said that the institution was not overcrowded. She admitted that there was ‘some mix-up’ but would say nothing as to whether the trouble stemmed from negotiations with the government.

Among the 10 prisoners rejected by the jail, one had been sentenced in court to two months in jail, according to Dir. Belanger. This prisoner was returned, to police cells, with the others. Although lodged in cells her sentence will not be purged, however, since time in police cells is not subtracted from the sentence.

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“20 Heave Bricks At Guards – Mercer On Bread, Weak Tea,” Toronto Star. June 28, 1948. Page 01.

A score of women prisoners at Mercer reformatory are ‘still holding out’ in their riot against the prison administration, officials said today. Although on rations of weak tea and bread as punishment for continued defiance, they have refused to stop shouting and during the week-end, some dislodged pieces of bricks from the wall and flung them at guards in the corridors.

Using nail files and spoons, broken and sharpened on stone, they picked at the mortar. Some whole bricks were heaved at the guards, but mostly the missiles were pieces of brick.

A dozen guards were brought from Guelph and Mimico reformatories. They are to replace Toronto police. Chief Chisholm has detailed three constables each eight hours to be on duty.

Will ‘Have Their Way’
T. M. Gourlay, inspector of prisons, is making a report on the disturbance to Hon. George Dunbar, minister of reform institutions. Meanwhile, no action is being taken.

Nine provincial police are still on duty. Toronto police are patrolling outside the building and the patrol sergeant in charge makes one trip through the jail with the matron.

Reduced rations had an effect on most of the women, who have returned to their regular work in the reformatory, officers said. The 20 out of the 100 who originally went on a sit-down strike and then rioted last Friday morning, seem determined to ‘have their way,’ they said.

Plans to remove the ringleaders to Don jail have been abandoned, officials stated.

The form of punishment to be meted out has not been decided. The superintendent, like the governor of all jails, has power to order the girls strapped, it was stated.

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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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“‘Siege for Days’ Seen in Mercer After Riot, Girls Scream Defiance,” Toronto Star. June 26, 1948. Page 01.

‘A state of siege that may last several days’ has developed inside Mercer Reformatory between police and guards and almost 100 women inmates who have been locked in their cells since a major riot Friday, Inspector Herb Harrison said today. More than 24 hours after the uprising, city and provincial police are still on duty as the belligerent women continue to yell and scream defiance at authorities, he said.

Friday more than 100 policemen were rushed to the old King St. W. institution when teh riot broke out during breakfast. At least two policemen were hospitalized, but have since returned to their homes. Det. Sergt. Sam Welsford had a wrist broken when he was clubbed with a baseball bat.

Toss Food Back
After struggling against clubs, fire hoses and innumerable missiles thrown at them, police and women attendants succeeded in locking the most serious offenders in the cell blocks.

When they continued to shout and break windows, their shoes were taken from them. Late last night and continuing through until late this morning, the prisoners kept up their shouting and swearing.

‘Food has had to be carried to them and everyone has been fed, although some just tossed it back out again,’ one official said.

To relieve city and provincial police now stationed within the building to check further disturbances, 15 male guards from the Ontario reformatory at Guelph are being brought to Toronto.

A. R. Virgin, provincial director of reform institutions, could not be reached this morning. His secretary said ‘he was too busy to talk.’

‘Tire Them Out’
Late this morning almost a score of city police and provincial officers were stationed in the building.

‘It looks as if it will be a matter of tiring them out,’ one official said. ‘They have shown no inclination to want to obey the regulations.’

Parcels addressed to inmates and brought to the buildings by the post-office department were being refused, it was learned.

A uniformed policeman patrolling the west wing near the kitchen was met with jeers and shouts of ‘There goes the law,’ every time he passed the windows.

Close to midnight last night, Chief John Chisholm and Inspector of Detectives Archie McCathie visited the reformatory, and left word that city police would stand guard until provincial authorities could muster enough men to take over.

While it is believed some punishments will be meted out to those taking part in the disturbance, provincial officials would not comment. They said a complete investigation must be held.

Under the reformatory act, the authorities have some powers to administer punishment but major penalties can only be applied by bringing accused before courts.

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“100 In Mercer Riot, Club Police,” Toronto Star. June 25, 1948. Page 01 & 02.

Scratch, Kick, Scream – Girls Hurt 3 Officers With Hose, Chair Legs

One hundred screaming women, wielding scores of chair legs, battled with police for half an hour today before a riot was put down at Mercer reformatory. Three policemen were hurt and several thousand dollars in damages was done before the riot that started with a sit-down strike [was over]. 

Scratching and kicking, the women were carried into their cells by police. Even after they were locked up they continued to scream.

An attempted mass escape was foiled by arrival of police, it was attested. A number of women were breaking down a back door to get out when first reinforcements arrived, Sergt. of Detectives William McAllister said.

About 100 police were required to quell the disturbance, which was said to be one of the worst in the history of the old institution.

OFFICER SLUGGED ON HEAD
One officer was hit with a baseball bat and another struck on the head as dished were hurled about the dining-room which was left a shambles.

The girls seized fire hoses and soaked the police who rushed into the building in answer to the riot call. Chief Constable Chisolm sent every available officer to the institution. Long after the actual riot ceased the girls were screaming at the top of their voices.

Prisoners charged two inmates were pushed down the steps by matrons. Expectant mothers in the institution were harshly dealt with, one girl prisoner told a reporter through a window as police ringed the building.

At 1:20pm, the girls were still shouting and screaming in their cells.

Rush 30 Cruisers
Police said there isn’t a whole dish in the place. They were hurled out the windows when the riot started in the dining room. The prisoners are said to have demanded the release of a girl, a favorite among them, from solitary confinement.

When their demands were refused by the superintendent, they refused to go to the factory. A sit-down strike started, police said, and when matrons attempted to break it up, the fighting began.

One of the first offenders to arrive, Det.-Sergt. Sam Welsford was the target of swinging chairs. He was warding off the blows with his arms when one of the girls who had a baseball bat struck him on the arm.

Taken to Hospital
Det.-Sergt. Arthur H. Keay was struck on the side of the head by a cup. He required medical treatment at the prison hospital. Sergt. Welsford was taken to hospital for x-ray and it was found he had a broken wrist.

Police sent 30 cruisers with instructions to pick up every available officer on the way to put down the trouble.The girls broke several windows in the east wing of the building and sang and shouted in profane language.

Fifteen provincial police were sent to assist Toronto police and the prisoners were finally herded into their cells. They continued to scream and shout long afterward. Work was called off for the day.

Miss Jean Milne, the superintendent, was bitten when removing a girl from the dining room at supper time last night. The girl was put in solitary. During the night the prisoners decided to riot if their demands that girl be removed from solitary confinement were not met.

Traffic Officer J. Masters was struck in the eye by a cup hurled from the cells by one woman but did not require hospital treatment.

The prisoners armed themselves with legs of chairs. Not a chair was left with a leg on, police said, as the women roamed through the dining-room and corridors, smashing windows. The halls were running with water from fire hoses.

Keay. Welsford and Det. Sergt. Angus Taylor were bruised as they warded off blows from chair legs.

Welsford and Keay were at the bottom of a heap of women who were kicking them. Keay was first to go down and Welsford tumbled on top of him and then all the women piled on top.

‘It was just like being at the bottom in a rugby tackle,’ said Keay at Toronto General Hospital, where six stitches were put in his head.

The reformatory was surrounded to prevent any possible escape, police said. There hasn’t been any trouble at Mercer reformatory for more than 10 years, police said.

A member of the superintendent’s staff said: ‘The trouble is pretty well over and the situation is under control.’

Asked if the girls had staged a sitdown strike, she said: ‘Something like that.’

The staff doctor said no girls were hurt, but said all further details would have to come from Queen’s Park.

At the reformatory, a woman who answered the telephone said the superintendent ‘is very busy right now. I can’t tell you anything.’

Prisoners at Mercer, who come from all over Ontario, mostly do laundry work and dressmaking.

May Face Charges
A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions and Chief Inspector Robert Anderson who was in charge of the police detail conferred in the office of the superintendent after the trouble had been put down. It was said likely some of the ringleaders would face charges.

100 SCRATCHING KICKING WOMEN CARRIED BACK TO MERCER REFORMATORY CELLS AFTER BATTLE WITH POLICE

Photo captions from left to right: 
1) RIOTING WOMEN INMATES at Mercer Reformatory squirt stream from fire hose through barred windows at squads of police outside. Some officers were injured as 100 police put down riot. One was hit with a baseball bat, one by a flying dish. 

2) 30 POLICE CRUISERS rushed to reformatory and officers were soaked by fire hoses, hit with chair legs in hands of screaming women as they rushed into building. One hundred women, scratching and kicking, had to be carried back to cells after the fight

3) SEVERAL THOUSAND dollars damage was done, including broken windows, in riot that started with sit-down strike. Girls tried to break down door to freedom, charged prisoners had received harsh treatment.

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