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