On January 22, 2021, a sign appeared on the grounds of the former Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston: “COMING SOON: Another Future Vibrant Seniors Community by Signature Retirement Living” (link1, link2).
The news came as a surprise to members of the P4W Memorial Collective, a grassroots organization led by former prisoners at the Kingston Prison for Women. The Collective has been fighting since the prison closed in 2000 to create a memorial garden for women who died at P4W and in prisons across Canada (link).
The Collective would also like to create a gallery space inside the former prison to share artwork and stories from former prisoners, and to ensure the history of the prison is not forgotten.
P4W closed in 2000 following recommendations by the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women in 1990 (link) and the Arbour Report in 1996 (link). Between December 1988 and February 1991, seven women died by suicide in P4W. Six of these women were Indigenous. (link).
In April 1994, a conflict between prisoners and guards was suppressed by an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team (IERT) who stripped the women naked and left them shackled on the floor for six hours (link). Security footage of the event was leaked to the media and broadcast on a national news program, The Fifth Estate (link).
In 2018, ABNA Investment Ltd., owned and operated by the Doornekamp family, purchased the former prison from Queen’s University (link). The prison sits on 3.27 hectares of land near Queen’s University, with views of Lake Ontario.
The P4W Memorial Collective has repeatedly requested meetings with ABNA Investment Ltd., but apart from one meeting on August 8, 2018, these requests have been denied or postponed. While the developer has verbally agreed to the importance of respecting the heritage of the building, former prisoners are uniquely qualified to design a memorial garden that meets the needs of the community as a whole.
Fran Chaisson, a former prisoner at P4W and a founding member of the P4W Memorial Collective, says:
“I feel like we have been kept in the dark throughout the whole development process. ABNA never brought us to the table to share any of our ideas about the memorial garden. So this is where we stand. We have been waiting for almost a year and a half for a meeting, and we still don’t have a say in what happens to P4W.
“We want to design a garden to remember the women, and we also want to create a room inside the building to explain the history of the prison. We’re not there to take over the 8 acres. We just want to be acknowledged. You can’t take away what happened at P4W. That’s history.
“Now they have a sign up by the prison saying that it’s going to be a seniors residence, and we haven’t been told or involved in any of it. Why did we have to find out about the developer’s plans this way? I feel like we’ve been disrespected. We were told we would be part of the process, but that hasn’t happened. When were they planning to involve us?”
Members of the P4W Memorial Collective state:
“It’s clear that we need to be closely involved in this redevelopment. We aren’t currently. Different uses like retirement housing, if done right, are things we can accept. But let’s not forget that it’s a prison, that thousands of people were confined in poor conditions for years, and many died there due to their suffering. We are asking for a memorial garden and for a room in the development to display information about the site as a shuttered prison. It needs to be addressed. Making the building and (literally toxic) grounds now fit for human habitation won’t change what it is.”
Dr. Lisa Guenther, Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies
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