Critical Analysis of Women’s Riot at 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. A few months later, starkly horrifying images began to emerge in the Canadian press. The Globe and Mail opened a front page story with the lead, “A defiant woman in a prison cell was confronted by three male guards who crashed a plastic shield against the cell bars before they opened the door and entered. They ordered the woman to take off her clothes. When she did not comply, the men moved in and squeezed her head between wooden clubs. They forced her to her knees and pushed her face down on the cell floor while her shirt, pants and underwear were cut off with a hooked knife, leaving her naked except for the chains” (Hess 1994). The revelation of the abusive nature of the criminal justice system and the absurdity of the criminal charges laid against female rioters pose an important question: Was the criminalization of female rioters a necessary step to maintain the safety of staff and the institution or did it serve a specific political, economic, and social purpose? The answer to this question is that the criminalization of prisoners is deeply rooted in the coercive nature of the economic, political and social relations of the Canadian state which sees these prisoners as a threat to current political, economic, and social power relations.

In order to understand the true meaning behind the women’s criminalization, the event in question needs to be analysed in terms of its relation to the political, economic, and social power relations of the Canadian state in the context of neoliberalism and capitalism.

The criminalization of the prisoners has the specific political goal of reinforcing the idea that certain classes and social types are the objective problem rather than the order of society which produces marginalization and subsequent punishment (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts 1978: 216). Historically, and even up to this day, marginalized groups are thought of by the state as being a threat to political power relations because they question the inequalities inherent in the capitalist system (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts 1978: 216). The riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and the subsequent Justice Arbour Commission Inquiry reveal that many prisoners at the Kingston Prison for Women belong to marginalized segments of society (Solicitor General Canada 1996). The revelation of female prisoners’ marginalized status and their abusive treatment by the criminal justice system mark the moment of revelation of coercive nature of capitalist power relations of society, and therefore the criminalization of these women is an important expression of power to control the people who are pushing to change current political power relations of the Canadian state (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts 1978: 216). In this sense, the state criminalizes these female protesters because the truth about state coercion that emerges from their protest and the subsequent Arbour Commission Inquiry undermine the legitimacy of the capitalist order.

The criminalization of the prisoners has a specific economic goal of sustaining liberal market economic relations. The creation of a criminal class has historically been important to the making of the working class because it helped to mark a division between the respectable poor, who are willing to enter the labour market, and those who do not (Gordon 2006: 42). The women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and the subsequent Justice Arbour Commission reveals that many women, who were imprisoned at the Kingston Prison for women were uneducated, social assistance recipients, homeless, sex-trade workers or single mothers (Solicitor General Canada 1996). In this sense, the criminalization of female prisoners from Kingston Prison for Women can be seen as a constant reminder to the rest of the working class about the consequences of unwillingness to enter the labour market (Gordon 2006: 42). The women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and the subsequent Justice Arbour Commission Inquiry reveals that female prisoners from the Kingston Prison for Women were not provided with any rehabilitative programs or educational courses, which would help them safely reintegrate into society and to find jobs (Solicitor General Canada 1996).

Finally, democratic states do not exist as independent entities, but rather they are governed by the rule of people (Barker 2009: 30). Their existence depends on public support, and public distrust of the political system significantly threatens the legitimacy of the democratic order (Barker 2009: 30). In this sense, the criminalization of prisoners has the specific goal of gaining public support for punishing those who question the legitimacy of the capitalist power structure. The widespread fear of prison populations among the public helps the state to legitimize its political agenda of criminalizing those who question the legitimacy of the current political, economic, and social relations of the state (Neocleous 2008:28). The ideology of security provides that states govern people by managing insecurities in the name of security (Neocleous 2008: 28). The women’s riot at the Kingston Prison for Women and the subsequent Justice Arbour Commission Inquiry reveal that the state indeed created enormous insecurities around the female rioters by depicting them as threatening to the security of the prison staff and the public (Solicitor General 1996). Such representation of female prisoners is not accidental but, rather, is intentional on the part of the state, whose main goal is criminalization of individuals who question the legitimacy of the capitalist power relations.

Thus, the revelation of the connection between the criminalization of female prisoners from the Kingston Prison for Women and the political, economic and social power relations of the Canadian state is significant because it helps to create awareness among the broader population about the coercion that is used by the state in order to control people who question current capitalist power relations. The coercive response of the state to prisoners who resist the oppression make the struggle for the prisoners’ rights extremely long and dangerous but the people’s awareness of the coercive nature of the state is an important step in the fight for prisoners’ rights. The closure of the Kingston Prison for Women in July 2000 illustrates the importance of the creation of public awareness in the straggle for prisoner’s rights. The fight for what is right is a long and dangerous struggle but the more of us that are involved, the less dangerous it will be.


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

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

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.

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.

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.

Solicitor General Canada. 1996 “Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston”.(



  1. […] when the Prison For Women (P4W) was built across the street. In April 1994, following a fight, six women were put into segregation. 2 days later in the segregation unit, there was a suicide attempt, a slashing and a brief […]


  2. Hi Barton12!

    I really enjoyed reading your piece on the riot that took place in Kingston’s P4W. Your analysis is very interesting and thorough, and I really liked how you touched upon the broader scheme of prisoners’ rights at the end.

    While reading your analysis, I was reminded of a video that I once watched that detailed the heinous actions taken against these women in P4W. The most shocking and disturbing part was viewing how the women were treated and handled by the guards. The extremely intrusive and humiliating act of being forcefully stripped of one’s clothing and pushed face-down to the ground—by male prison guards—is akin to sexual assault. As was discussed in your piece and in the comments above, the prison guards’ actions are yet another example of sexism and patriarchy at work in the criminal justice system, which speaks to the larger power relations in society.

    I think it’s great that you used Todd Gordon in your analysis. Another important point that arises from his work and your piece is how women in the CJS are always seen as overly dangerous and “extra” subversive because they contest gender norms. I think this is explicit through the prison guards’ actions. I can’t get over the fact that the guards not only breached the prisoners’ rights, but they engaged in acts that were overtly dehumanizing. I feel that this speaks volumes on how women are viewed, and subsequently treated, in the CJS. This is not to say that men prisoners are not abused, because there are various cases that demonstrate this; however, I think the actions against these women prisoners are deeply symbolic of patriarchal and heteronormative power relations.



  3. I thought your analysis of this event was very thorough and informative. I think the treatment of these six women in the Kingston Prison for Women epitomizes the state’s criminalization of women who resist. It also points to a larger issue, like you stated, of the female prison population, which is comprised of poor, young, and racialized women, who are often single mothers, and possess minimal levels of education, high levels of illiteracy, high levels of unemployment at the time of arrest, and histories of sexual or physical abuse. The way these women were treated also ran the risk of re-victimizing women who had already had traumatic experiences at the hands of men. This event serves as an illustration of the effects of neoliberalism, capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy on women, and how these systems inform notions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, and discrimination. It’s also worth noting that we live in a culture where a male-dominated government determines laws regarding rape, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, prostitution, pornography, and abortion – all things which affect the lives and well-being of women. Lastly, in addition to the political, economic, and social implications you analyzed, I also think that another explanation for the criminalization of women in this way can be that there is a moral panic surrounding these women. Young girls who run away, miss curfew, engage in sexual activity, or display behaviour which is deemed “unfeminine” or unmanageable are inevitably classified as risks and come under the control of social institutions. This classification of risk also follows them into prison, where they often suffer violations of their rights, as was evidenced by the events that took place in the Prison for Women in Kingston.


  4. It is evident from all three of your posts that your main focus lies within marginalization and the stigmatization of certain groups as being criminal. I agree with this point because as you mentioned, it was clear that many of the women in this prison were those who were marginalized in their own community as uneducated, social assistance recipients, homeless, sex-trade workers or single mothers. It does begin to reflect society in the lens of almost being selfish. This is because instead of helping these people who really could use the support, they are being distinguished as deviant and criminal. I find the link you made between capitalism and the labour market very interesting. Your analysis does shift the focus to those who are disrupting capitalist order and the labour market. Similarly to the notion of “the other”, these women are being perceived as not belonging to society because of the struggles and difficulties that they must face and in turn disrupting the capitalist society. It could be possible that a lot of these women ended up in prison because they felt they had no other choice but to engage in some sort of deviance – for example stealing food for their children. This is another prime example of the state and their ability to ignore many of the social problems that exist in society. The state does possess the power to do more to help these women along with many other people who are struggling to live comfortably day-to-day. It is riots like these that occur in attempt to make those with power realize that coercion and tactics like those displayed in a prison are unacceptable. Sometimes it might seem that repeated forms of dissent are necessary to get the message across.



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