Media Analysis: Kingston Penitentiary Riot 1971

The news media plays a significant role in our society, which is perceived as a neutral, balance and substantive source of information.  The ideal role of the media in a liberal democratic society is significant, such as its response to social movements and dissent. The Kingston Penitentiary Riot in 1971 illustrates the news media’s effort in the construction of threat.  The dominant representation of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot and its dissenters is barbaric, violent, unpredictable and destructive. This representation fosters state suppression and criminalization against the dissenters within our society.

The manner in which a protest and/or movement is defined, is important and attains key implications. The Kingston Penitentiary incident occurred in response to the fundamental issues prevalent within the Canadian correctional services, but was labeled as a “riot” by the news media. The word “riot” is problematic, because it can denote to violence, resulting in the depoliticizing and delegitimization of the group and their movement. Hence, throughout my analysis I am completely conscious of this issue.

The dominant representation of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot is evident in mainstream news media such as Salwyn (1971) article in the Toronto Star’s front page called “500 prisoners riot at Kingston, 6 hostages held”. Salwyn reported that “About 500 prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary went on a window-smashing rampage… threatened to cut a finger off one of the six guards they seized hostage”  (1971: 1). The initial sentence automatically illustrates the author’s position, which is the issue of violence. The media frame used within the article is Boykoff (2007) violence frame. The violent rioters, or the potential for violent activities was the predominant frame through which Salwyn (1971) presented the Kingston Penitentiary Riot. This included a major focus on smashed furniture, wood, glass, windows, and the threat of a guard’s finger being cut by the inmates.  The national security and war discourse is also evident, in which the praise and importance of Kingston Police force, the national Canadian army and 100 provincial officers ready to move in from nearby cities is discussed. The state institutions handled the event by authoritarian warfare measures, which initially resulted from adverse issues within the Canadian correctional services.  Salwyn (1971) labels Kingston Penitentiary inmates as rioters, which reflects its violence frame throughout the article. The consequences of this representation includes, delegitimizing the group and their voice and the core issues that ought be fixed such as prisoner rights and living conditions.

An editorial commentary in the Toronto Star by Jean-Pierre Goyer titled “Kingston Nightmare” also illustrates the  dominant representation of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot. Boykoff (2007) violence frame is also used within this article primarily describing the rioters as violent and destructive. Goyer (1971) stated, “One prisoner was beaten to death, others seriously injured. And a number of inmates were stripped, tied to a signal bell framework and sexually assaulted” (p. 8). Despite the violence being perpetuated by only a few inmates, the news media can generalize such actions to the entire group. The article examines the Canadian criminal justice system and its relation to the Kingston Penitentiary riot.  Goyer (1971) states “ By all means, let us stress rehabilitation, but let us remember that retribution and security also have their place in the judicial and penal system” (p. 8). The author favors for a punitive approach to the incarceration of the Kingston Penitentiary inmates while underestimating the power of rehabilitation. Goyer (1971) refers to the inmates as vicious and depraved convicts whose rehabilitation is doubtful hence he suggests isolation and maximum security. Such representations and solutions can result in negative implications, which include the failure to address the underlying and systematic issues, and the continuous cycle of violence and crime, in which the rehabilitative approach can end.  Goyer’s approach to the Kingston Penitentiary riot, reflect the state’s interest in the continuous use of punitive incarceration and its billion-dollar prison industrial complex. Goyer (1971) believes despite the inmate’s legitimate complaints against the prison system, it still does not give a rationale for their violent actions.

Another article on the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971 is from the Canadian Press in the Toronto Star titled “Troops with riot clubs and gas masks circle cellblock at Kingston”. Canadian Press (1971) illustrates the dominant representation of violent and destructive rioters and a warfare mentality. Canadian Press states, “A company of 60 Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers armed with; three-foot riot sticks, wire-mesh shields, gas masks, and barbed wire moved into the penitentiary compound” (1971: 1). The article, portrays the Kingston Penitentiary inmates as a serious danger and threat to the nations security, hence warfare measures become justified. This illustrates Boykoff (2007) concept called authority-order bias, which refers to the states power and influence such as the police or government officials on mass media. The information retained throughout the article is by police reports and government officials, which illustrates a biased perspective on the Kingston Penitentiary Riot.

An article in the Globe and Mail titled “Kingston cellblock a shambles; undesirables’ wing shows evidence of violence committed” by John Scott also illustrates dominant and popular representations of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971. The violence frame is evident in Scott’s article, mainly focusing on the violent actions perpetuated by the inmates such as the destruction of the main cellblock, debris piling up 5-6 feet, smashed furniture, injuries, deaths etc. Scott states “Everything that was humanely possible to destroy was smashed or ripped apart by the 500 rioting convicts who held control of the prison for nearly four days” (1971; 3). The author generalizes the violent actions of a few inmates to the entire group of inmates within the Kingston Penitentiary prison.  The majority of the article encompassed an intense description of the destruction and violence caused by the rioters within the prison.  The article failed to present the fundamental issues of the correctional services, which perpetrated such violent actions.

Despite the dominant representation of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot, it is still possible, with some difficulty to find counter-hegemonic discourses. Richard Doyle from the Globe and Mail wrote an article called “Ugliness in Kingston” in response to the various news media articles on the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971. Doyle (1971) mainly questions where the responsibility lies and in what degree, mainly suggesting the prison institution itself and the way it operates. The author leans towards a more sympathetic and lawful frame, mainly discussing positive and substantive solutions such as smaller prisons, special services for prisoners and impartial due process for all inmates involved in the Kingston Penitentiary Riot.

The news media is perceived as a neutral, balanced and substantive source of information within our society. However, there will always be an imbalance due to power relations, which is inherent within Canada’s colonial history and capitalist society.  In the case of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot 1971, the criminal justice system along with the police and correctional officers hold significant amount of power and this becomes evident in the news media.

References:

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.

Canadian Press 1971. “Troops with riot clubs and gas masks circle cellblock at Kingston.” The Toronto Star, April 17. Retrieved December 3, 2012 (http://micromedia.pagesofthepast.ca.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp)

Doyle, Richard. 1971. “Ugliness in Kingston.” The Globe and Mail, April 20. Retrieved December 1, 2012 (http://heritage.theglobeandmail.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp)

Goyer, Jean-Pierre. 1971. “Kingston Nightmare.” The Toronto Star, April 20. Retrieved December 3, 2012 (http://micromedia.pagesofthepast.ca.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp)

Salwyn, Andrew. 1971. “500 prisoners riot at Kingston, 6 hostages held.” The Toronto Star, April 15. Retrieved December 1, 2012 (http://micromedia.pagesofthepast.ca.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp)

Scott, John. 1971. “Kingston cellblock a shambles; Undesirables’ wing shows evidence of violence committed.” The Globe and Mail, April 24. Retrieved December 3, 2012 (http://heritage.theglobeandmail.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/PageView.asp)

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One comment

  1. Hello Snyy1! First and foremost, your media analysis is extremely well done! I too chose to analyze the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of April 1971 and found it interesting that we not only found the same media articles, but came to the same conclusions with regards to these articles. Throughout my search of media articles however, I found it almost impossible to find any news articles that spoke sympathetically to the situation, and attempted to understand the grievances of the dissenters. As such, after having read your media analysis I found myself gravitating towards the Richard Doyle article so that I could expose myself to some other stances the media has taken to portray this event. Quite obviously, most of the articles both you and I had found and included in our analysis were situated around depicting the violence as carried out by the dissenters. However, what was interesting about the few articles that I enclosed within my analysis was that these articles also stressed that the reasons for this particular riot was unknown at any point during the event, and even afterwards the true cause remains a mystery. One of the most prevalent themes within the various media articles I had found was the ignorance and disinterest that the dissenters presented towards their ’cause’, which led society to argue that there may not have been a legitimate cause at all. I had actually spent a great deal of time searching through different media sources in hopes to find ONE article that spoke solely to the harsh realities that were persistent within Kingston Penitentiary, and how these injustices had led to this ‘riot’. However, I was unable to find anything. Luckily enough I came across your media analysis and your inclusion of the Richard Doyle piece really bridged the gap between all the sensationalized reporting, and accurate journalism.

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