April 1994 the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women
by April 24, 2006|
On April 26, 1994 a video camera captured grainy black-and-white images of an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team (IERT) storming the cells of sleeping inmates at a women’s prison. The men then shackled the defenceless women, forced them to the floor and stripped them naked. They did this one woman at a time, stopping periodically for meal and smoke breaks. From beginning to end, the raid lasted six hours.
Sounds like a movie. But these events took place in Kingston, Ontario’s Prison for Women (P4W), Canada’s only federal prison for female offenders at the time.
How could this possibly happen here, only 12 years ago? Surely it was wrong – if not illegal – for men to strip-search women, and for federal employees to treat fellow Canadians in such a dehumanizing manner. And why, though the incident eventually commanded the attention of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations, do so many Canadians have no idea that this ever happened?
In 1990, the federal government released Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. The report announced sweeping changes to the criminal-justice system’s treatment of female offenders. The Government of Canada website states that:
[Creating Choices] brought about a new correctional philosophy for women offenders – one focused on the principles of empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility.
This new approach wasn’t taken in 1994.
Four days before the raid, a brief, violent confrontation took place at the prison between six inmates and several of the correctional staff. The inmates were moved to the prison’s segregation unit and had criminal charges laid against them.
In the days that followed, three women – who had not been part of the confrontation in question but were in the segregation unit for other reasons – acted out in various ways.
On Tuesday, April 26, correctional staff demonstrated outside the prison, demanding that those involved in the initial confrontation be transferred out of the prison. That evening, the warden called in the all-male emergency-response team to conduct a “cell extraction” and strip-search of eight of the nine inmates in the Segregation Unit. Following standard procedure, one member of the squad videotaped the operation.
In the days and months following the raid, few outside the criminal-justice system knew that it had taken place. “The women were not believed, and when I said that I believed them, I was told I’d been conned,” says Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
Ten months later, in February 1995, CBC’s programme the fifth estate aired an exposé entitled “The Ultimate Response.” For the first time, the Canadian public saw for itself what had taken place on April 26, 1994.
The programme featured excerpts of the video footage shot by the IERT, with the faces, but not the naked bodies, of the inmates blurred. The tape recalled the by-then-infamous video of club-wielding police officers beating Rodney King in Los Angeles four years earlier. Though less overtly violent, the P4W footage was arguably more disturbing.
For such actions to be carried out against women prisoners was particularly appalling – because more than 80% of female inmates in federal institutions have suffered either sexual or physical abuse at the hands of men. Many have suffered both. The actions of the riot squad – and by extension, the prison and Corrections Canada – were re-traumatizing already traumatized and marginalized women.
The outcry that erupted following the fifth estate broadcast sparked a public inquiry into the actions of the IERT that was announced two days after the programme aired. Mme. Justice Louise Arbour led the commission of inquiry.
Released on April 1, 1996, the final report of the Commission to Investigate Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston concluded that the IERT’s actions:
- Violated Article 53 of the United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which stipulates that women prisoners be “attended and supervised only by women officers.”
- Contravened articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration and Human Rights, and the UN Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Were antithetical to the “new correctional philosophy for women” put forth in the Creating Choices report.
The Kingston Prison for Women closed its doors in July 2000. It has been replaced, as outlined in Creating Choices, by a network of smaller, regional facilities and an Aboriginal healing lodge. The federal government has implemented some of the recommendations outlined in the Arbour Report.
The raid and strip-searches at P4W:
- raised awareness of prisoners’ rights;
- highlighted the need for monitoring and external oversight of the nation’s penal institutions;
- served as the basis for policy discussions by the Human Rights Commission and United Nations.
But questions linger. Why did these particular violations of human rights not dominate the headlines as others have? Why do these events remain a little-known chapter in recent Canadian history?
“I think there’s a sense that these people are not deserving of concern, and that they’re the least deserving of having their rights upheld,” says Pate, who has worked with women, men and youth in conflict with the law for over 20 years.
Pate is often reminded of that quote, attributed variously to Churchill and Dostoyevsky, that the measure of a society’s virtue is the way it treats its prisoners and its most vulnerable citizens.
By that yardstick, on April 26, 1994, Canada failed miserably.
This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.