Women urge memorial garden at notorious former prison in Kingston

TORONTO — Former inmates and their supporters planned to use Prisoners Justice Day on Friday to renew a push for a memorial at the now defunct Kingston Prison for Women.

The infamous penitentiary in Kingston, Ont., dubbed P4W and once branded in an official report to Parliament as “unfit for bears,” closed in 2000 and is awaiting redevelopment.

The P4W Memorial Collective, which wants a memorial garden built on the grounds, also planned a healing circle on the site to draw attention to the high incarceration rates of Indigenous and other disadvantaged females.

The group, comprising in part former prisoners, called the need for public remembrance and collective healing urgent.

“The goal of the P4W Memorial Collective is to create a memorial garden on the P4W grounds for future generations to reflect on the lives lost behind prison walls, and to celebrate the strength, survival and resistance of women behind bars,” the group said. “We must take care not to forget the lives it once held, or overlook those warehoused elsewhere today.”

Located across the street from the much better known Kingston Penitentiary where women and girls were also once incarcerated, P4W opened in 1934 as Canada’s first and only prison built specifically to house female inmates. As such, women from across the country served time there.

Sen. Kim Pate, a long-time prisoner activist who planned to be in British Columbia on Friday with the Senate human rights committee as part of its study of issues relating to prisoners, said P4W was not just another heritage building, and its history needs to be properly preserved.

“That history and recognition must include public acknowledgment of the fact that too many women were imprisoned and died there,” Pate said in a statement. “Most were isolated thousands of miles from their children, their homes and their communities.”

While the main purpose of the collective is to honour those who died in P4W by way of a memorial garden, the group also wants to raise awareness of the suffering of jailed females.

“Women and girls are still dying in custody,” the group said. “Women, particularly those who are racialized, young, impoverished, and/or struggling with mental health issues, represent the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the country.”

The Kingston facility drew condemnation almost from the get-go, with a report in the late 1930s describing its conditions as “disgraceful” and recommending it close. Several subsequent reports also urged closure.

Inmates at the prison were used as psychiatric guinea pigs in the 1950s and ’60s, when they became subjects for experiments involving the hallucinogenic drug LSD and electro-shock therapy. The experimentation prompted a lawsuit in 1998.

Figures show that between December 1988 and February 1991 alone, seven women killed themselves in the prison. Six were Indigenous.

The prison drew national headlines in 1994 when an all-male emergency response team quashed unrest at the institution. Broadcast security video of the male guards strip-searching the women sparked widespread outrage, prompting a report in 1996 that recommended closure, which occurred in 2000.

Queen’s University bought P4W in 2007 but recently sold the designated heritage site to a private developer, ABNA Investments.

“We are concerned that it may be developed for commercial purposes that erase or trivialize its history,” the P4W Memorial Collective said. “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.”

In his 2016-2017 report, federal prisons ombudsman Ivan Zinger noted that Indigenous women accounted for more than 37 per cent federal female inmates despite comprising just a few per cent of Canada’s population.

“The over-incarceration of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in corrections is among the most pressing social justice and human rights issues in Canada today,” Zinger wrote.

Prisoners Justice Day — started in Canada after a prisoner death at Millhaven penitentiary 43 years ago but now marked internationally — honours the women and men who have died unnatural deaths in prison.

Kingston Penitentiary, which housed many of Canada’s most notorious male inmates, closed in 2013. Tours of the facility have proven highly popular.

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