Canada’s first federal prison for women opened in Kingston in 1934. Known by most simply as P4W, it housed women who had received federal sentences (any sentence over two years long) from across the country and was part of the extensive prison landscape in Kingston, which is also home to several federal prisons for men.
After repeated reports criticizing the way in which the prison operated, it finally closed its doors in 2000.
Misogyny behind bars
All prisons have much to answer for, but P4W has an especially notorious history; in large measure because it housed women prisoners. Women are expected to behave, and the response to those who don’t is often out of proportion to what they have done.
The approach to incarcerating women has also ignored the reality that leads most women to jail: violence they have been subjected to, often for their entire lives. More than 90% of the women who spent time at P4W, regardless of what law they had broken, had been physically, sexually and/or psychologically abused by men at some point in their lives.
Just four years after it opened, the Archambault Report recommended P4W be closed, citing its “disgraceful” conditions. No action was taken on this recommendation, and in the decades that followed, women incarcerated at the prison became subjects for experiments on LSD and electroconvulsive therapy, at least some of it conducted by academics at Queen’s University.
In 1977, the MacGuigan Report wrote, when calling for the prison to be closed, that it was “unfit for bears, much less for women,” but once again its doors remained open.
Across Canada, Indigenous women and men face extraordinarily high rates of incarceration, thus continuing the pattern of racism that has existed throughout the post-contact history of this country.
The rate of incarceration of Indigenous women is shameful; just 2% of the population of Canada, they make up 38% of the prison population.
At P4W, between December 1988 and February 1991, a period of 14 months, seven women committed suicide, six of whom were Indigenous.
In 1994, the videotape of a particularly brutal strip search of some women incarcerated at P4W by a male emergency response team became public, as did information about the long-term segregation of prisoners. As a result of public concerns, the federal government appointed Justice Louise Arbour to conduct an inquiry. The Arbour Report was an indictment of the Correction Service of Canada’s handling of this specific situation and opened a window into the world of incarcerated women.
It contained a number of recommendations about the incarceration of women, noting that systems that work for men do not work for women. One of those recommendations was that P4W be closed and regional institutions be built and opened in its stead.
When P4W was closed in 2000, the women who had been incarcerated there were transferred to regional federal institutions across the country. While the construction of new facilities addressed some of the problems posed by P4W and raised in the Arbour Report, it also raised new concerns. With more available beds, the number of women sentenced to federal time has increased; new facilities do not necessarily mean new attitudes, as can be seen in the deaths of women like Ashley Smith; Indigenous women continue to be over-represented (the number of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons increased by 109% between 2001 and 2012).
Creating a memorial
Sometime after the prison closed, the stone walls that had surrounded the building since it was built came down. In 2007, the property was sold to Queen’s University, which is now trying to sell it.
Prisoner rights activists, academics and women formerly incarcerated at P4W do not want the history of the incarceration of women in Canada to disappear with the sale of the property. They are advocating for a memorial garden to be established on the site of the former prison. The garden would honour the memory of the women who have died in the prison, raise awareness that women continue to suffer inhuman treatment and to die in custody.
In particular, the P4W Memorial Collective says, the memorial garden would make connections between colonization, residential schools, violence against Indigenous women and the treatment of Indigenous women in Canada’s so-called justice system.
Please read the Collective’s letter and consider signing it to support the creation of this permanent memorial to the shameful treatment of incarcerated women as well as to the strength and resilience of those women.