P4W Memorial Collective
The Prison for Women Memorial Collective (P4WMC) was first inspired by a group of women, who had either done time or who had been volunteers at the Prison for Women (P4W), after attending the first public Healing Circle organized by the Kingston Elizabeth Fry Society and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) at the now-closed P4W in the summer of 2015. At the time we believed it was the last Healing Circle that would ever happen there since the prison had been sold to Queen’s University in 2007 from the federal government.
Not only were we inspired by the Healing Circle, which drew in well over a hundred people from all walks of life, but also by the ongoing trauma we had endured inside this prison, and by the spirits of our fallen sisters whose souls haunted us daily to free them from the confines of the prison. The Indigenous elders and our own experiences led us to believe that the only way we could be healed from this trauma was by illuminating the injustice and suffering that society had inflicted upon us – in many cases, by no fault of our own. Former prisoners Fran Chaisson, Laurel Klaus, Jackie Davis and Ann Hansen began this journey to create the P4WMC, so the women, who had died and endured life behind these prison walls, could be freed from this trauma, and fight for prisoner justice in the newer regional prisons which continued to use marginalized women as scape goats for all the inequities and injustices of capitalist society. The voices, names, and experiences of women prisoners is mostly erased from institutional and public histories, favouring the stories of the prison guards instead. Our work is aimed at providing a counternarrative to the sensationalized history provided by CSC in places such as the Kingston Penitentiary Museum.
The P4W building is a ‘Recognized Federal Heritage Building’ and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site meaning that its heritage features are internationally recognized. Since the developers who now own the property are planning on tearing down the entire prison with the exception of the front façade, it is important that the “intangible cultural heritage features” are recognized. According to UNESCO those include “oral traditions and expressions (story-telling and songs), sacred practices, rituals, events and ceremony.”
The site has been described in government reports as a “stigmatized site due to the challenging history surrounding the experiences and events which took place within the Prison for Women.” We assert that the “challenging history” of P4W cannot be erased or “destigmatized” by demolishing the building or trying to erase the experiences of women prisoners who were imprisoned behind its heritage walls. Instead, we hope to shine a bright light on the “stigma” to illuminate the injustice and inequity that lead to stigmatization. Part of our mission is to destigmatize prisoners by illuminating the fact that their criminalization was rooted in unjust laws and economic inequities, while also highlighting their strength and resilience.
The P4WMC emerged during an era when enlightened citizens all over the globe were toppling monuments to colonialism and racism. This little group of ex-prisoners and volunteers from the now-closed P4W decided that if we wanted to land on the right side of history, we must acknowledge the true cultural heritage context.
An Advisory Board was created in 2022, in order to have volunteers from across Canada serve as advisors in acquiring a legal title to a 1,700 square foot Garden space on the front north-east side of the property. After years of wrangling over at least 3 different Memorandums of Understanding (MOU), the P4WMC and the City of Kingston negotiated a legal document that gives the P4WMC the legal right to 1,700 square feet of Garden Space. The location and final rendition of the Gallery is still not decided. However, this Advisory Board, with the help of Jen Campbell, Heritage Director of the City of Kingston, have made it possible for us to acquire this legal document and promises of a future Gallery from the developers.
The P4WMC will create a living archive so our fallen sisters did not die in vain. The Memorial Garden and Gallery will represent all federally sentenced women in Canada, not just the women who died inside P4W, because we do not want to create this nostalgic myth that P4W was the ultimate evil prison, that has been replaced by these six new “progressive” prisons, like the so-called “Healing Lodge” in Manitoba. Let us land on the right side of history.
History of P4W
And Its Closure
Kingston Whig Standard – P4W was reformatory failure
Kingston Whig Standard – Prison for Women event emotionally charged
Now Toronto – P4W Closes but the Scars Still Remain
The Canadian Encyclopedia – Prison for Women Closes
The Sale of the Prison For Women
The Globe and Mail – What is lost when we pave over a prison