Critical Analysis: Kingston Penitentiary Riot 1971

The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971 is a significant event for understanding the criminalization of dissent. The criminalization of dissent illustrates the wider social, political and economic issues in the Canadian state. There are a number of key theoretical and conceptual frameworks relevant to the Kingston Penitentiary Riot, including power dynamics and class struggles, the representation and construction of threat, and the coercive policing of dissent.

Firstly, it is central to question and analysis why dissent and resistance occurred in the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971. Significantly, there is a dialectic relationship between the Canadian state, which includes the criminal justice system professionals, and the dissenters. The dialectic relationship does not collide but shape and influence one another’s existence. Therefore it is important to analysis this dialectic relationship by understanding the underlying issues and factors found in the Canadian society.

There are a number of significant theoretical and conceptual frameworks I will discuss in order to understand the significance of the Kingston Penitentiary Riot and the criminalization of dissent. Starr et al (2011) article titled “What is Going On?” examines dissent and criminalization and its social control in the contemporary era. Starr et al (2011) states that policing is just one tactic of social control that is indirect and significant. The social control of the Kingston Penitentiary prisoners is evident resulting in dissent and potentially violent outpouring against the Canadian system at large. There are two key conceptions of social control by Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx. Thomas Hobbes conceptualizes social control as an apparatus intended to protect the health of society by enforcing and producing specific normative social behavior (Starr et al, 2011). Karl Marx conceptualizes social control as a tool of class struggle and reproduction of the state’s ideology, which is used to protect elite power (Starr et al, 2011). Karl Marx’s conceptualization of social control is more relevant to the Kingston Penitentiary Riot in 1971. The Prison system is a major example of a social control mechanism by the state, intended to protect elite power, which can include criminal justice system professionals, politicians and the overall government.

The social control placed upon the Kingston Penitentiary inmates ruptured in the evening of April 14, 1971 when the riot broke out within the prison. Karl Marx’s class struggle is evident in the Kingston Penitentiary Riot and is significant to the criminalization of the inmates. The relationship between the Kingston Penitentiary inmates and their criminalization can be understood as an ongoing power dynamic and class struggle through state institutions and their dominant ideologies. Due to the power dynamics and class struggles within the Kingston Penitentiary dissent and resistance was certain to occur.

Key dynamics of power is evident in the Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971, in which the state, which includes the criminal justice system, are entitled to power and authority that allowed the inmates to face harsh conditions that resulted in their anger and hostility towards the system.  This allows one to question if the law protects the interest of all individuals such as the prisoners or of the powerful elites only, which control and administer the law.

Power dynamics is relevant in the extreme pressure and repression by the state against the inmates, which is evident in the Canadian prison system’s failure. The Swackhamer (1973) report titled The Commission of Inquiry into Certain Disturbances at Kingston Penitentiary during April 1971 examined a number of aggravating factors resulting in the uprising such as police brutality, aged facilities, overcrowding, maximum security confinement, extended periods spent in cells, a lack of adequate channels to deal with inmate complaints, shortage on professional staff, and limited recreational and educational programs. The power dynamics, demonstrate that the state has immense control and power to criminalize dissent, exclusively when their dominant ideologies are disregarded.

Hall et al (1978) examines power dynamics specifically the concepts of hegemony and coercion. According to Hall et al (1978) power is essential in a capitalistic society, in order to produce order and enable economic production. In a capitalist society, the role of the state is to create fundamental institutions such as the prison. The prison plays a major role in our society, including economic profit and the social benefit of segregating an unwanted population that is deemed violent and criminal. Hall et al (1978) discusses two types of power, consent power that involves hegemony and coercive power that involves force. Both consent power and coercive power is reflective and important to the Kingston Penitentiary riot and its criminalization of its inmates.  When the consent power, which involves hegemony, is broken, the criminal justice system professionals move towards coercive power, which is reflected in their response to the riot, which was aggressive.

The Kingston Penitentiary Riot 1971, illustrates a key concept of Hall et al (1978) called the crisis in hegemony. The state lost its dominant hegemony and power within the prison, once the riot began. Ultimately, the crisis of hegemony is dissent, which is a bigger form of struggle in which individuals recognize and the states hegemony is broken (Hall et al, 1978). The crisis of hegemony occurred due to the dominant issues prevalent in the criminal justice system, as mentioned before. It is also important to recognize, that hegemony exists in society at large, not just in the space of the prison.

In contrast, Michel Foucault examines power and resistance very differently. Foucault (2009) examines the relationship between power and knowledge by focusing on three distinct powers, which includes sovereign power, disciplinary power that was the birth of the prison and governmentality.  According to Foucault, knowledge such as police, medical or legal result in control and power. When there is power there is a potential for resistance, and this is illustrated in the Kingston Penitentiary riot. The power and authority present within the Kingston Penitentiary ignited the resistance and uprising of the inmates.

The representation and construction of threat is also important in understanding the criminalization of dissent. The Kingston Penitentiary riot contained a powerful police response, which brought in the Canadian Army and the Kingston Police force. The inmates were automatically criminalized and perceived as violent, dangerous and immoral people. Overall the criminalization of the inmates completely delegitimized their actions and voice against fundamental issues prevalent in the Criminal justice system and the Kingston Penitentiary prison.

The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of 1971 resulted in significant implications specifically in the area of prison reform. The federal government of Canada decided to close down the Kingston Penitentiary prison due a number of issues such as its aging infrastructure, its increase expense and maintenance and simply because it was not working well anymore (Fitzpatrick, 2012).

Overall the Kingston Penitentiary riot, demonstrates the processes involved in the criminalization of dissent and resistance within Canada. This involves regular individuals such as the inmates in the Kingston Penitentiary, that chose to resist against the dominant ideologies and norms became automatically labeled as threats and criminals. The management and criminalization of dissent is done through state mechanism such as the law and police force, which is illustrated in the Kingston Penitentiary Riot.  Overall, it is important to examine the criminalization of dissent within any protest and it’s underlying factors and processes’ influencing what is essentially portrayed to society.


Fitzpatrick, Meagan. 2012. Federal Prison Closure Blasted by Union” CBC. Retrieved February 19, 2013

Foucault, Michel. 2009. Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978. New York: Picador. Pp. 333-358.

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clark, John 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.

King, Mike. 1997. “Policing and Public Order Issues in Canada: Trends for Change”. Policing and Society 8:47-75

Starr, A., Fernandez, L 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.

Swackhamer, Jason W. 1973. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Disturbances at Kingston Penitentiary during April 1971. Ottawa: Information Canada.




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