Kingston Penitentiary Riot, April 1971: Media Analysis

Remarkably, however expectedly, mainstream media has found numerous ways to depict the events that had transpired during the four-day riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971. The death of two inmates occurred during this riot. Through an analysis of five different articles written by well-known newspapers, I have been able to conclude that their [newspapers] depiction of the 500 prisoners-turned-rioters was predominately negative. The newspapers expended all their efforts on shedding light on the horrendous conditions, as experienced by the guards, whom were taken hostage, rather than attempting at educating the public of the prevailing causes that led to the riot in the first place. With the use of the Boykoff and Adese articles presented in class, as well as the five articles found pertaining to said incident, this post will look at the various ways the media has essentially demonized the dissenters of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971, rather than attempting to understand or explain what the contributing factors were of this riot.

Jules Boykoff, in her article entitled “Mass Media Deprecation”, introduces the concept of media frames. Her analysis of the ways in which the media depict dissenter was geared at understanding the framing of the global justice movement, however, her findings are easily transferable and used in understanding how other movements are framed within the media. She argues that media frames are simplified snapshots that are subsequently transformed into events, and are later translated into news stories (Boykoff 2007). “A frame chooses “some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”” (Boykoff 2007: 217). The framing of events plays a substantial part in the application of political power, Boykoff argues. Essentially, the particular frame represented and portrayed in each news story is an exertion of power by the dominant ruling class unto its’ subjects, the public. Looking specifically at the ways in which the media represents dissenters, Boykoff recognizes “five predominant frames: the violence frame, the disruption frame, the freak frame, the ignorance frame, and the amalgam of grievances frame” (Boykoff 2007: 222). It is important to note that no single frame is exclusive and set apart from the others; rather, the media seemingly represents dissenters in their various publications using more than one frame per story. The different frames “often appear within the same news segment, reverberating and reinforcing each other” (Boykoff 2007: 241). Apart from these five methods of representation within the media, Boykoff also identifies three other ways in which the media deprecates dissenters: underestimation, false balance, and disregard, of which, underestimation and disregard will be looked at within this post.

Within the various articles I have found across the web, I argue that every frame has been used in each article; however, the violence and amalgam of grievances frames were used most often.

Andrew Salwin of the Toronto Star writes, “500 of the 658 prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary went on a window-smashing rampage last night and threatened to cut a finger off one of six guards they seized as hostages” (Salwin 1971: 1). Salwin continues, “they [prisoners] refused to discuss their grievances with Warden Arthur Jarvis or his staff, but five prisoners were permitted to hold a press conference at 10:30 am” (Salwin 1971: 1). Salwin notes that the guards whom he had interviewed did not understand the reasons for the disturbances or why they were spared. In addition, the assistant Warden Edgar Babcock gave testament that perhaps the riot was due in part to the long-standing hate of Kingston Penitentiary by those prisoners who were imprisoned there. It is important to note that the primary focus of this and all other articles read, was to narrow in on the barbaric nature of the prisoners rather than their attempt at rectifying the unjust treatment they had been experiencing. In addition, reporter Peggy Curran in an issue of The Gazette gives a brief and somber recount of the “150 Years at Kingston Penitentiary”. In said article, she too does little to shed light on the factors that may have potentially contributed to the outbreak of the various riots, including that of 1971. Rather, she writes, “There are even fleeting references to the “bad times” at Kingston Pen the 1971 riot, for instance, when prisoners trashed several cell blocks, took six guards hostage and brutalized 14 inmates dubbed “undesirables” by the convicts themselves.” (Curran 1985: 1). This statement, hidden amongst an onslaught of writing pertaining to the ‘harsh realities’ of prison life, gives the perception to the readers that prisoners whom dissent are merely doing so because “prison is not a nice place to have to stay. It was never meant to be. It was meant to be a place that people would want to stay out of. No inmates are there because they want to be.”  (Curran 1985: 1). Rather effectively, she is able to shun and condemn any possibility at justifying and elaborating on the dissenter’s plight, and instead gives a simplistic answer for why prisoners are so unhappy with their circumstances.

Furthermore, in an attempt to further negate the prisoners’ fights for their rights, the media placed all blame on one man’s [Billy Knight] attempt at escaping prison itself (Tripp 1996). An article written by Rob Tripp of Kingston Whig – Standard, which was written more than twenty years after the incident, focused on the ways that these dissenters have affected the lives of those whom society would deem regular, law-abiding citizens. Tripp discusses the toll that the riot had played on one of the guards whom was taken as hostage, stating that “after the riot, Decker’s first marriage dissolved amid depression, alcoholism, and tattered nerves” (Tripp 1996: 1). I found it interesting that many of the articles that I have gone through have focused primarily on the damage done to one of the six guards who were taken hostage, rather than to any of the prisoners whom were involved in, or witnessed the event. The articles succeeded in distinguishing the prisoners as the ‘others’, and alienating them from what is perceived as the norm. Furthermore, another point worth noting pertaining to how the disruption frame was utilized within one of the news stories was the ways in which the media had distorted the numbers of dissenters to that of counterdemonstrators (Boykoff 2007). Every article that I have read for this media analysis has identified 500 protestors whom took part in all events, from window smashing to playing a role in the death of the two inmates. However, in comparison, scholarly articles note that many protestors spent their time attempting to protect the guards taken hostage, or choose not to take part in any of the events. The fact that the media speaks on behalf of all prisoners present during the riot gives the public the notion that all of the inmates are bloodthirsty animals, with no organizational capabilities to govern themselves productively to promote their cause, as well as no ability to remain civil amongst themselves. Moreover, that all the prisoners were in fact enabling themselves in such a way so that they could disrupt as many lives as possible.

The articles also frequently mentioned the issue of the death of two prisoners, by their fellow rioters. This event had taken precedent in the media, shadowing any attempts at discussing the underlying issues of the rioters as to why they choose to riot. As such, the depiction of the dissenters as barbaric, uncontrollable human beings, strengthened society’s belief that they need be locked away. Not only are they incapable of successfully fighting for a cause, but also the causes to which they were fighting for were second to their innate need to commit criminal activities, making them a danger to society. To further illustrate this point that the prisoners are ‘ignorant-freaks’, Michael Valpy and John Scott wrote in their article for the Globe and Mail that, upon their exit from the prison, “the inmates smiled and waved at the crowds outside the penitentiary as the buses pulled away. Many held up their fingers in the V for Victory sign” (Valpy and Scott 1971: 1). This gives the impression that these dissenters are so detached from society that the deaths of two of their own signals some sort of mutated victory. In a subsequent article written by Michael Valpy in The Globe and Mail, Valpy states that “the inmates have been told by their leaders to write down all their grievances and hand them in to the a grievance committee” (Valpy 1971: 29). Interestingly, of all the articles I have been able to collect, this is the only mention of grievances that the prisoners had attempted to address. However, although Valpy does shed some light on this, he fails to eradicate what those grievances are to the reader, and shadows this claim by further discussing the various ways that the prisoners had tormented those they deemed as ‘the undesirables’. Once again, it became apparent that what the rioters were protesting for was of little importance, and what evidently took precedence was the destructive and ‘inhumane’ actions of said rioters.

In conclusion, through the use of various media frames, mainstream media has found a multitude of different ways to demonize dissenters in the Kingston Penitentiary riot of 1971. By doing so, they have successfully distorted and lessened the message that dissenters attempted to portray. Unlike scholarly papers that address the issue from all sides, the media represents solely the interests of those in power, and through their work have shun dissenters, as they do not represent conventional societal norms.


Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Deprecation.” Pp. 216-47 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard.” Pp. 248-60 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Curran, Peggy. 1985. “150 Years at Kingston Penitentiary” The Gazette, pp. 1-2. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from the Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies database.

CTV News Stox Blog. 2004. Kingston Penitentiary Riot Of 1971. CTV News Stox Blog. Retrieved December 5, 2012, from (

Salwin, A. 1971. “500 Prisoners Riot at Kingston 6 Hostages Held.” The Toronto Star, pp. 1-2. Retrieved December 2, 2012, from (

Tripp, R. 1996. “Imprisoned by Memories.” Kingston Whig – Standard , pp. 1-3. Retrieved December 3, 2012, from the Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies database.

Valpy, M. 1971. “60 Feet Of Corridor Is No-Man’s-Land Separating Guards And Inmates.” The Globe and Mail, p. 29. Retrieved December 2, 2012, from (

Valpy, M., & Scott, J. 1971. “Prisoners End Kingston Riot; One Convict Dead, 11 Injured.” The Globe and Mail, pp. 1-3. Retrieved December 2, 2012, from (


One comment

  1. Billy's Granddaughter · · Reply

    appreciated this analysis.



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