Overview of Women’s Riot at Kingston’s Prison for Women

The women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women erupted on April 24, 1994, when six women prisoners violently attacked the correctional officers and took one hostage. During this confrontation one of the officers was badly injured. The riot did not last long; the women were immediately apprehended by police officers and charged with prison breach, assault with weapons and possession of weapons with the purpose of endangering the public. Consequentially, the Union of Solicitor General employees argued that the event under investigation was a planned and deliberate attempt to escape by the women prisoners, and that it involved attempted murder (Solicitor General Canada 1996). However, Madam Justice Louise Arbour, who was appointed to lead the commission inquiry into this event, rejected the union’s claims, that inmates had intent to kill, despite the evidence that an attack was not spontaneous. Instead, she found that these women experienced injustice behind the walls in forms of strip searches, cavity searches, segregation and the denial of basic human rights (Solicitor General Canada 1996).  The women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and Madam Justice Louise Arbour’s disturbing findings led to the closing of the Prison for Women in Kingston on July, 6 2000.

In order to understand the true meaning of the reasons behind the prisoner’s abuse and their subsequent dissent, the event in question will be analysed in terms of the prisoner’s resistance to capitalist relations of the power in our society.

The Justice Arbour Commission Inquiry questions and reveals the conditions behind the abuse of these jailed women. The dominant common-sense knowledge is that prisoners go to jail because they are evil and lazy people. However, the women’s riot and Justice Arbour Inquiry challenges the common-sense knowledge by revealing that these women are criminalized not because they are evil but rather because they are seen as a threat to the existing capitalist order.  Historically, poverty was always seen as a threat to capitalist order of society and there should not be any surprise that these unemployed, uneducated, and marginalized women are criminalized (Gavigan 1999). The imprisonment then could be seen as a form of control over a segment of the population that represents danger to existing power relations.

The reason that mass incarceration and abusive treatment persists, despite such disturbing findings as in the Justice Arbour report, has to do with the legitimization of capitalist order (Barker 2009). The government criminalizes marginalized groups to reinforce an ideology that certain classes and social types are an objective problem rather than an order of the capitalist society, which produces that marginalization on the first place (Barker 2009). Such criminalization of the poor helps the government to legitimize itself in the eyes of the broader population and subsequently retain power and control.

Finally, the women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and the subsequent Justice Arbour report are significant because the revelation of abusive conditions in Kingston Prison shows the ineffectiveness of our prisons in crime prevention. In this sense the main goal of our prisons is not to prevent crime but rather to maintain capitalist relations in our society. It is very important that we as a society start caring about conditions in prisons because prisons are the looking glass of our society, which reflects our societal values and beliefs (Hansen 2000).



Barker, Vanessa. 2009. The Politics of Imprisonment. Oxford, N.Y: Oxford University Press.

Gavigan, Shelley. 1999.” The Place of Class and Gender in Access to Justice.” Pp. 208-230 in Locating Law, edited by E. Comack. Halifax: Fernwood.

Hansen, Ann. 2002. “Prisons Are the Looking Glass of Society: The Struggle toward Dignity for Women”. Pp. 30-33 in Criminal Justice System, edited by Amanda Glasbeek. Canadian Scholar’s Press Inc.

Solicitor General Canada. 1996 “Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston”. Retrieved October 13, 2012 (http://www.justicebehindthewalls.net/resourses/arbour_report/arbour_rpt.htm).



  1. For me these women were real people, as I worked with some of them in Ontario after Creating Choices began. I am so sad that so little is written about P4W and thank you for remembering the events and the outcomes. I wish there was something written about “The Time of the Suicides” and the songs written to uplift the women spiritually, and emotionally. These women were so vulnerable.


  2. Well written. You have concisely summarized your topic and infused it with a complex analysis of the prison system being a site of repression based on the intersection of the variables of race, class, and gender. I feel that a clear definition of power was missing in your analysis, providing one would make your argument that much stronger. Great job!



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