Honouring the ‘fallen sisters‘ of Kingston’s shuttered Prison for Women

A developer wants to transform the property — but a local group is fighting to ensure that the institution’s history is not forgotten
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on August 10, 2018
Kingston's Prison for Women with a for sale sign on the property
The Prison for Women opened in 1934, and the last inmate was transferred out in 2000. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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KINGSTON — Twenty-five years after she was released from Kingston’s Prison for Women, Fran Chaisson can still hear the cries of the other women on her cell block.

“One of the most painful memories for me was hearing and feeling the pain of the other women. When it really got bad was when they started slashing [themselves],” says Chaisson, an Ojibwe woman who served time at the prison — which closed in 2000 — in the 1970s and ’80s.

Chaisson, who’s a member of the P4W Memorial Collective, a group founded in 2015 that advocates for the creation of a memorial garden at the dormant prison, wants to honour the “fallen sisters” who died there — many by suicide — over the 66 years it was in operation. “I’ve been on a mission,” she says. “I feel these women were left behind, and they need to be remembered and respected. They were all loved at one time. They were sisters, they were mothers, they were aunties.”

Last month, local developer ABNA Investments finalized a deal to buy the prison site. The transaction set in motion a planning and negotiation process that will determine the future of the property — ABNA has indicated that it would like to build residential, commercial, and green space at the historic location. But the purchase has also spurred the P4W Memorial Collective into action: it wants to make its case for a memorial garden before any design plans are approved.

Only a few years after the Prison for Women first opened, in 1934, across the street from Kingston Penitentiary, calls were made to shut it down. One commissioner of a 1977 report on the state of the penitentiary system in Canada described it as “unfit for bears, much less women.” Over the years, several more reports followed; they highlighted such problems as inferior programming, poor accommodations, and security issues — but the prison remained open.

In April 1994, footage of an all-male emergency response team strip-searching eight prisoners in segregation was aired nation-wide. After the resulting public outcry, the government appointed Justice Louise Arbour to lead an investigation. By the time her scathing report was released in 1996, though, the facility was already slated for closure. On May 8, 2000, the last inmate was transferred, to Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women.

Queen’s University bought the property in 2008, but in 2017, the school announced it was selling because it had been unable to find a viable use for it. ABNA’s purchase marks a new chapter in the site’s history. (Company representatives declined to comment for this story, although at a city council meeting last month, ABNA’s Nate Doornekamp acknowledged the prison’s historical significance and said that his company would be remiss if it failed to honour it.)

City staff acknowledged that the prison is a “very challenging site for re-development for a number of reasons.” The current heritage-designation bylaw protects “a number of interior attributes which were specific to prison use” — steel bars and locking mechanisms, for example — making any commercial or residential development “practically impossible to achieve.”

Staff will review the heritage-designation bylaw for the former Prison for Women. As yet, there is no timeline for the process, so any decisions will likely be made by the next city council.

“We recognize that this is a very important property, and it has a lot of heritage value,” says Lanie Hurdle, Kingston’s commissioner of community services. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure that the proposal that comes forward can work within the property, and we're going to do our best to work with all the parties — the property owner and the community organizations that also have an interest in this property — to have a good outcome for the community.” 

Members of the P4W Memorial Collective hope the developer will create a memorial garden in front of the prison building so that the women who died in the Prison for Women — and at other Canadian prisons — will never be forgotten. The group wants to acknowledge the plight of Indigenous women, who are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in Canada. An open letter posted on the P4W Memorial Collective’s Facebook page calls for a memorial “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.” The City of Kingston has told the group that it will have a seat at the table during preliminary discussions.

Lisa Guenther, a prison-studies scholar at Queen’s and a member of the P4W Collective, says former prisons are not always redeveloped with remembrance in mind. Some cities have turned dormant jails into “haunted house”-style tourist attractions — an approach that Guenther says often “exploits the history of the prison as an unknown and forbidden place.” (At the Texas Prison Museum, for example, visitors can borrow striped shirts and pose for selfies behind bars.) Guenther says other former prisons have been turned into boutique hotels.

“What we would like to see at the former Prison for Women is a development that respects the history of the prison rather than exploiting it,” she says, “and that helps the public to see that we are all implicated in this history, even if we have never been incarcerated ourselves.”

Ann Hansen, another member of the collective and a former inmate, sees the prison’s history as a microcosm of the systemic injustice in Canada’s prison system. In her book, Taking the Rap: Women Doing Time for Society’s Crimes, she notes that many of the women who were incarcerated at the Prison for Women were the victims of physical and sexual abuse, as well as racism, sexism, and economic inequality — things that many currently incarcerated Canadian women have also faced.

“Like Franny [Chaisson] said, we see these women as our fallen sisters because they were,” Hansen says. “Women who were born, just like anybody else, but they were born into these unfortunate circumstances that our economic and social policies create.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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