Women's Prison Riot Report

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 15, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 15, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

Women's Prison Riot Report

In a tiny room on the top floor of Kingston, Ont.'s labyrinthine Prison For Women - up a single flight of stairs from the infirmary where the notorious "incident" began two years ago - inmate Ellen Young tucks her legs up on a wooden chair, blows out a lungful of cigarette smoke and breaks into a wide grin. She is eager to talk about a new federal report that contains a blistering attack on her jailer, the Correctional Service of Canada. "I'm happy that the report did not turn a blind eye on the system," says the pale, slim 30-year-old who is serving a 4½-year sentence for assault and break-and-enter. "It's all true - we've been telling them that from the start, but nobody believed us."

Young is one of six prisoners who were involved in a brief but violent altercation with a number of guards on April 22, 1994. Tension in the federal institution had been mounting for months before the incident, which began when Young approached the hospital area and aggressively demanded her prescribed medication. She was quickly joined by five other inmates. Following a physical attack on guards, prison officials took a hard line with the inmates. They immediately placed the women in isolation cells, using Mace to subdue three of them. After four days, the warden called in a male Institutional Emergency Response Team to conduct strip searches which, according to protocol, were videotaped. The next day, the inmates were subjected to body cavity searches. Then, on May 6, Young and four of the other women were transferred to Kingston Penitentiary. "I was nine months in segregation," recalled Young. "So many degrading things happened to me with the goon squad and the mental abuse in KP - we were put in with a bunch of sexual predators, some really dirty men." The women were also denied access to lawyers, outside exercise and, for days at a time, not allowed to shower. "It was hell," said Young.

It was also illegal. Last week, after a year of hearings, Justice Louise Arbour of the Ontario Court of Appeal, head of the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston, vindicated Young and the other inmates. In her report, commissioned by Solicitor General Herb Gray, Arbour attacked prison officials' "ongoing infringement of prisoners' legal rights" and their "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of the women. Arbour did not single out and blame individuals, but she did state that "the absence of the Rule of Law is most noticeable at the management level, both within the prison and at the regional and national levels." Nor did she limit her criticism to the Prison for Women: she said the shortcomings were "systemic" and "part of a prison culture" in Canada. Even more damning, she does not trust the correctional service to remedy its own problems. In her scathing report, Arbour concluded that "there is nothing to suggest that the service is either willing or able to reform without judicial guidance and control."

The report led to the immediate resignation of John Edwards, 55, head of the federal prison system since 1989. The solicitor general accepted Edwards' request for "reassignment"; the career civil servant - who once held a top-level position with national museums - will remain in his post until a replacement is named. The same day, Gray offered a "heartfelt apology" to the six inmates at the centre of the controversy and said the government is considering financial compensation for the women. The minister also formed a committee to advise him on the implementation of the report's recommendations within six weeks.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator, an independent agency that acts as an ombudsman for prisoners in federal institutions, applauded the judge's conclusions. "Arbour's report is consistent with our findings," said Ed McIsaac, executive director of the office. For several years, long before the incident at the Prison for Women, the Correctional Investigator had expressed concerns about the treatment of prisoners - particularly the use of excessive force and segregation and failure to investigate grievances - in annual reports to Parliament. In fact, the glaring discrepancy between a report on the events at the Prison for Women prepared by the federal ombudsman (which supported the inmates' complaints) and the correctional service's own internal investigation (defending the officials' handling of the incident) was one of the factors that sparked the inquiry. The public viewing of the videotape, with its disturbing images of the strip search, was another. "They are serving time in a federal institution, so one has to assume off the top that they are not angels," said McIsaac of the prisoners. "But no matter how bad an individual's behavior, that does not absolve the authorities of their responsibility for observing the law."

Last week, correctional service officials bore Arbour's criticisms in stoic silence. But corrections officers on the prison ranges in Kingston appeared wary and defensive. "People may think we're all bad," confided one matronly guard, "but when one inmate came back after being out on parole and rearrested, she gave me a big hug." A short time later, another officer warned Maclean's not to question guards because "a gag order has come down." Still, one member of the guards' union revealed that many feel misunderstood and frustrated by their image as villains. "There are some pretty vicious women there," he said. "Some are killers - you can't put them in quilting bees."

The mood was more upbeat in the prison gym one afternoon when 20 inmates pulled their orange plastic chairs across the pea-green linoleum and formed a circle to discuss the Arbour report. "Maybe we should nominate it for best-seller of the year," joked Joey Twins, who was involved in the so-called incident and undertook a determined effort to force prison officials to release the infamous videotape of the illegal strip search. Kingston lawyer Jo-Ann Connolly and Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, had come to the prison to summarize the report for the women and answer their questions - in a frank and open discussion with no prison officials present. But despite the strong moral support provided by Arbour's report, several of the inmates were worried about a possible backlash by the guards. Some believed that the low turnout - there are 115 women incarcerated at the Prison for Women - was due partly to fear. "The guards are not pleased," said Anita Syrett, a fresh-faced 26-year-old serving time for robbery. "The warden tells us that the staff is stressed out. You can cut the tension with a knife. Tomorrow, anybody sitting here talking will be treated like a dog."

Many of the inmates believe that Arbour was too lenient with officials who violated prisoners' rights. "Why isn't she naming names?" asked one dark-haired woman wearing a purple sweater with matching slippers. "The inmates were all punished for what they did." Some argued that the only way to reform prison culture is to change the entire administration. "They should start resigning," says Harriet Lynch, a 50-year-old former teacher who has spent nearly 10 years in the prison for the second-degree murder of her husband. "How do you allow people to manage prisons and play a role in rehabilitation when they have openly admitted they broke the law?" But many of the women are skeptical that the report will lead to real change. And without videotapes - the indisputable evidence that resulted in a federal inquiry - inmates feel that their complaints will continue to be ignored. "If I get in an altercation with a guard, who do you think will be believed?" asked the woman in purple slippers. "My word means zip and in the grievance procedure, it's still my word against the officer's word." The cynicism runs deep. "I'll be here for 15 years," said one prisoner. "Will I ever see a difference?"

Prisoners' rights groups, though, are optimistic that Arbour's strong indictment of the system will have some clout. "There is a new, clear focus on women," Pate told the group. "Instead of always having women as a second priority, Arbour encouraged the correctional service to put them front and centre." But Pate admitted that some of the inmates' concerns about the implementation of the report's recommendations are justified. "It's my fear that it will take years," said the lawyer and longtime prisoner advocate. And, she added, Arbour's recommendation that women should have easy access to the courts "in principle is excellent - but in practice, I wonder how they will exercise that right. Can they get to a phone? They need the resources to pay a lawyer. And the women have to know that they have that right."

And while the prisoners have the Arbour report on their side, many Canadians feel little sympathy for them. "There were more victims here than just the inmates," said Steve Sullivan, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime in Ottawa, who nevertheless agrees with much of Arbour's report. "They were kept in segregation too long and that is inexcusable. But our biggest concern is the heartfelt apology of Herb Gray - I've got a file bursting with names of families of victims, who suffered when corrections or the parole board screwed up, who would like an apology."

But for Young, the mother of two children aged 10 and 12, Gray's apology came "a little too late." She and several other women are suing the government for punitive damages. "We are not asking a token amount," said Dan Scully, a lawyer representing Young and two other inmates. "Given what Justice Arbour recommended, I would expect that the courts would not recommend a token amount." But Young, who grew up in one of Toronto's toughest neighborhoods, does not expect much beyond financial compensation. "I appreciate what the judge did," she said, "but I have no faith in the system. It will never change."

One change, however, is certain. The much-despised, 62-year-old Prison For Women will close its doors in October as part of a larger restructuring that began in 1990. Canada's 320 female convicts serving sentences longer than two years, some of them now housed in provincial institutions, will be relocated to six regional centres across the country by the end of this year - centres that are intended to be more humane. They include the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., where cottage-style housing will replace heavy concrete. "Guards learn how to frisk us, strip us, shackle us," says Lynch. "Something we haven't seen in years is to be treated like a real person." The fear among inmates and prisoners' rights advocates, though, is that new facilities will do nothing to change old attitudes.

Maclean's April 15, 1996