Media Analysis of Women’s Riot it the Kingston 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 prison guards and charged with prison breach, assault with weapons and possession of weapons with the purpose of endangering the public. There were many news stories that surrounded this event. Violence frame was the predominant frame through which these news stories were presented. The Toronto Star, in an article titled “Stop Pandering to Prisoners”, applied the vocabulary of violence to these protestors: “These women had spent four days attacking the guards (physically and verbally), making weapons, throwing urine, and causing a commotion” (Kivi 1995). The ideology of security and liberalism provide justification for using coercive force against anybody who threatens to use violence, endangering public safety (Neocleous 2008: 72). In this sense, reporters used the word “weapons” to invoke a violence theme so that the use of coercive force against these female prisoners could be justified. The consequences of such violent representation of these female prisoners are that people become convinced that these prisoners are violent and that they deserve the punishment. People disengage themselves from the degrading conditions of Canadian jails because they feel that anybody who uses a weapon should be making amends to society, not rioting and trying to sue for damages.

Dehumanization framework was also frequently applied to the Kingston Prison’s female protestors. The Toronto Star opened a front- page story with the lead, “Why would anyone be surprised when the prison authorities conducted a strip search? No one knew what these animals were going to do next” (Kivi 1995). The author used the word “animal” to dehumanize these female rioters in public eyes so that the violence against them could be justified. The author presented these prisoners as animals so that they would be considered to be less than human and undeserving of sympathy. American colonizers often dehumanized natives by calling them animals or savages in order to justify natives’ extermination (Gordon 2010: 37). The consequence of such dehumanizing representation is that it desensitizes the public from the pain and suffering that these female prisoners go through in jail. The public does not consider them as human beings and thus do not want to do anything to change the degrading conditions of Canadian jails. The author does not critique the prison guards’ animal behavior against these women because the truth would quickly sway public opinions to the female rioters’ side.

Security framework was also frequently invoked by the media in their interpretation of the women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women. The Globe & Mail reported, “Prison administrators say the operation, in which a riot squad from Kingston Penitentiary was summoned to quell a disturbance at the women’s prison, was necessary to maintain the safety of staff and the institution. Our female guard was stabbed with a needle and another severely kicked, and these inmates got what they deserved” (Hess 1994). The author justifies the actions of prison guards by arguing that they did what they needed to do in the name of security despite the fact that prisoners’ rights were violated by the guards. The state governs people by managing insecurities in the name of security (Neocleous 2008: 28). By creating insecurities around female prisoners, an author justifies the coercion used against these women, legitimizing the actions in the eyes of the broader population. The revelation of the true facts would seriously undermine public trust in the prison system and the government. The consequences of creation of insecurities around female prisoners are very serious because people see these females as a threat to their own security. This undermines our democratic rights because we willingly give away our liberty in the name of security, without realizing that the security is only a myth that government uses in order to exercise its powers over us.

Overwhelmingly, initial press reports tried to justify prison authority’s actions, relying on state authorities as sources of information. Many politicians and higher authorities have supported prison guards’ violence against female rioters. The Kitchener Record, in an article titled “Video Truths”, offered deputy commissioner’s congratulations to the all male emergency response team that so professionally put down the April riot at Kingston’s infamous Prison for Women (The Kitchener Record 1994). Globe and Mail, in an article titled “Report Vindicates Women’s Prison Staff”, indicated: “Staff at the Kingston Prison for Women responded properly and in some cases heroically in quelling a series of violent incidents last April. The report, released yesterday by the Correctional Service of Canada, finds no fault with the way prisoners were treated. Instead, it paints a picture of the prison as a place that has tended to view women as victims, and so has been ill prepared to deal with inmates who are manipulative and capable of serious violence” (Hess 1995). Such misrepresentation of facts by higher authorities illustrates the ways through which the ruling class tries to convince the public that its actions are legitimate. The ruling class always tries to justify its actions if it feels that the public revelation of the controlling nature of those actions would seriously undermine the status quo (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clark, and Roberts 1978: 209). Indeed, it was not in the interest of democratic government to reveal the horrific conditions of Canadian prisons because it would undermine the whole idea of democracy.

The press has presented the events of April 24, 1994 in favour of the Kingston Prison’s authority. However, the powerful images of abused and traumatized female prisoners began to emerge. A member of the prison emergency squad filmed the female prisoners’ abuse and leaked this film to the media (Bacquie 2006). In February 1995, CBC aired an expose titled “The Ultimate Response”. For the first time, the Canadian public saw for itself what had taken place on April 24, 1995 (CBC News 1995). The footage featured the violent sexual abuse of female prisoners by the prison guards. Such revelation of truth represents a crisis of the status quo, because the public no longer wants to listen to the coercive stories of the government (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts 1978: 209). Such exposure of true facts was significant because it helped to bring awareness about indignities which were done in Kingston Prison for Women, leading to prison’s closure in July 2000. The fight for what is right is a long and dangerous struggle, but the more of us who are involved, the less dangerous and the more possible it will be.

References:

Bacquie, Sierra. 1994. “The Night Raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women.” Section 15.ca: Rebels without a Clause. Retrieved on December 8, 2012. http://section15.ca/features/reviews/2006/04/24/night_raid_kingston_prison/

CBC News. 1995. “The Ultimate Response”. February 13. Retrieved on December 8, 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/after_prison.html

Gordon, Todd. 2006. “Producing Capitalist Order: Police, Class and Gender.” Pp.29-51 in Cops, Crime, and Capitalism. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing

Hess, Henry. 1994. “Prison Defends Use of Riot Squad: Critics Say Tape Shows Team of Men Subduing Women Inmates.” Global and Mail, December 16, 1994, p. 17. Retrieved on December 8, 2012. http://heritage.theglobeandmail.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp

Hess, Henry.1995. “Report Vindicates Women’s Prison Staff”. Globe and Mail, January 21, 1995, p. A5. Retrieved on January 23, 2013. http://heritage.theglobeandmail.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp

Hall, Start, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 1978. “Crime, Law and the State.”Pp. 181-217 in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.

Kivi, Anita.1995. “Stop Pandering to Prisoners.” Toronto Star, February 28, p. 22. Retrieved on December 8, 2012. http://micromedia.pagesofthepast.ca.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp

Neocleous, Mark. 2008. “The Supreme Concept of Bourgeois Society”: Liberalism and the Technique of Security.” Pp.28 -72 in Critique of Security. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

“Video Truth.” 1994. Kitchener Record. December 16, 1994, p. A2. Retrieved on December 8, 2012. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/therecord/access/497210231.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Dec+16%2C+1994&author=&pub=The+Record&edition=&startpage=A.2&desc=Tape+shows+woman+stripped+in+prison

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