The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of April 1971

The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of April 1971 has assisted in our understanding towards the criminalization of dissent in several ways. Firstly, it is important to note that the process of criminalization is “the attachment of the criminal label, to the activities of groups which the authorities deem it necessary to control” (Hall et. al 1978:189). In this sense, the riot of April 1971 has been criminalized mainly due to the fact that it was conducted and carried through by a collective body of approximately 600 inmates at a maximum-security prison, following the assault and hostage taking of six prison guards. Evidently, this form of dissent was labeled criminal due to the predominant ideology that individuals, once convicted of a crime, need to be kept under some sort of surveillance for the protection and security of the rest of society. Quite obviously then, this form of dissent is rather different than those directed by free citizens, who would be seen as exercising their right to protest as afforded to them by their participation in a democratic society. As such, the analysis of said demonstration (the Kingston Penitentiary Riot) will be substantially more complex in that its’ findings may not necessarily be directly relatable to legalized forms of dissent.

When attempting to understand the criminalization of dissent, it is important to note the existence of social control in society by the elite ruling class unto it’s unjustly marginalized counterpart. According to Starr, Fernandez and Scholl (2011), there are two conceptions of social control. The first “conceptualizes social control as a set of mechanisms intended to protect the health of society by enforcing normative social behavior [and the] second sees social control as a tool of class struggle” (3). Identifiably so, those whom were dissenting during the riot at Kingston Penitentiary were those of the lowest marginalized class, criminals whom have been shunned by society for their acts ‘against society’. As such, it is important to note that a majoritarian view of said people is to deprive them of their rights, including their right to legally assemble and protest. However, due to the fact that “social inequality has divided the population into interest groups, and [that] social movements have emerged as a method of shaping society” (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl 2011: 4), it has become evident that an instance of some sort was bound to happen due to the social injustices that were projected throughout the Kingston Penitentiary at that time.

As was seen painstakingly through the media analysis, the use of social control by the dominant classes through the media has painted those dissenters as having an illegitimate basis for dissent, thereby further marginalizing them. As was argued by Starr, Fernandez and Scholl (2011), this process of referring to dissenters as deviants has evolved into the process of criminalizing dissent, in which protest has been associated with crime and deviance. Considering as how those who were portrayed in such a light were already incarcerated due to previous deviant behaviour, the further stigmatization enacted by misrepresentations by popular media added to the discrimination already faced by those who were partaking in the riot, the prisoners.

In this specific case, the issue at hand is the repression and oppression of the lowest class of society, and their methods used to outwardly rebel against their situation. Social grievances, according to Clarke (2003), that affect the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society “are only the sharpest expressions of much more wide-ranging injustices” (492). In this instance, the issue being prisoner rights. A use of Pamela Oliver’s findings pertaining to the civil rights movement within the United states sheds significant light on the existence of riots, and their use within democratic societies by members of all social spheres (Oliver 2003). Whereas the general population was made to believe the riot to be an act of unorganized random chaos and violence, “many social scientists argued that riots were not merely crime, not uncontrolled or senseless, and should be viewed as extreme expressions of political grievances” (Oliver 2003:8). With regards to the institution, after the riot, inquiries had been made into the causes of the disturbance, and the findings of these committees had only justified and revealed the plight of those dissenters of the harsh conditions that were experienced in Kingston Penitentiary. The issue being fought for by prisoners had been to fight for prison reform, which had eventually become the outcome of the riot. Of all the inquiries into the incident post riot, all had agreed that there was a justifiable reason for dissent on part of the protestors, and that is was substantiated that “when people feel a sense of injustice about their circumstance, they often feel less constrained to avoid criminal activity to satisfy their needs or desires” (Oliver 2003:12).

It is imperative to note from this case study that even those whom have been labeled criminal still should be awarded basic rights. Although their methods may have been in some way a bit extreme, their message hadn’t gone unnoticed. In a democratic society where if one disobeys the law they are punished accordingly, if that person accepts the punishment than their acceptance of the rules of that society should not be disregarded, and their right to protest against social injustices done unto them should remain their right. This case is a prime example of how even marginalized individuals whom are out casted as ‘the others’ within society will still fight against social inequalities and unjust social control. Prisoners, representing the lowest class within society, are continuously subjected to malpractices of the rule of law by law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, they are consistently facing discriminatory practices on the basis of ‘getting what they deserve’. Given that society and the state has yet to fully acknowledge (and implement into practice) fundamental rights prisoners should have, the use of riots and other forms of dissent are an inevitable outcome of the social, economic, and political injustices they are subjected to. 


Clarke, John. 2003. “Commentary: Social Resistance and the Disturbing of the Peace.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 41:491-503

Hall, Stuart, 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: Macmillian.

Oliver, Pamela E. 2008. “Repression and Crime Control: Why Social Movement Scholars Should Pay Attention to Mass Incarceration as a Form of Repression.” Mobilization: The International Quarterly 13(1):1-24.

Starr, Amory, Luis Fernandez and Christian Scholl. 2011. “What is Going On?” Pp. 1-18 in Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence and Social Control in the Global Era. New York: New York University Press.


One comment

  1. Hello crim2012,
    Your analysis on the Kingston Penitentiary riot was a very interesting read. I completely agree that those who are in prison should still be awarded basic rights. Just because they are locked away from society they should still be able to receive the basic human rights that are granted to everyone else in society because, though they are prisoners, they are also human. How does Canada claim to believe in the universal human rights if the rights of prisoners are not granted?
    You’ve made a great point that social movements are a method to shape society. This is crucial to the prison riots because they show the wider injustices of society and the injustices to the most marginalized groups in society. I also liked how you concluded that riots are inevitable until the state and society implements fundamental rights towards prisoners. Your analysis was a great read because it showed how social control causes the unjustly treatment to the marginalized.



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