Hard time

Account of 1971 Kingston prison riot highlights dehumanizing conditions, many of which persist


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Prisons not only handcuff the body, they derail the mind.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2021 (682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prisons not only handcuff the body, they derail the mind.

Take the delicious luxury of choice: to sleep in, to eat hamburgers for dinner just because, to wear what we like, to turn the lights off or on, to disagree with authority, to go elsewhere. These are among the everyday freedoms disallowed behind bars, necessary prohibitions that nevertheless dehumanize the people caged there.

But the most important observation author Catherine Fogarty makes in this her first book (and a good one) is not about the notorious riot in 1971 in Kingston Penitentiary (KP) that she examines, but her conclusion that Canada’s prisons are still much better at housing and hurting people than helping them.

Fogarty writes that Canada’s Correctional Service is a secretive and untrusting organization that opposes change more than it introduces or accepts it and, as a result, pretty well rejects anything that would really humanize conditions in our prisons and make life in them less hopeless, rehabilitation a little more likely.

Fogarty’s latest information on our penal system is that inmate assaults on each other and staff are increasing, suicides are on the up and prison murders are at their highest in a decade.

Fogarty is founder of the Toronto-based TV production company Big Coat Media. March is the 50th anniversary of the bloody and savage riot at Kingston Pen, a prison so old it opened before Canada became a nation. KP closed for good in 2013 and was replaced, notes Fogarty, by a new and even more repressive human zoo named Millhaven.

The flagrant overuse of solitary confinement explained by Fogarty shockingly illustrates how much Canada’s prisons and jails continue to think punitively.

Peter Bregg / The Canadian Press files Canadian Armed Forces troops arrive at the Kingston penitentiary on April 15, 1971, to help prison officials after inmates took control of the main cell block. The riot ended three days later and left two inmates dead.

Only six years ago, a federal prisoner spent 41/2 years in solitary under full 24-hour lighting. Eleven years ago, in 2010, a prisoner died in solitary after 162 days. Fifteen years ago, a provincial prisoner self-strangulated in solitary after almost three years there. (The United Nations believes that anything more than 15 consecutive days in solitary is torture.)

The famous writer Charles Dickens visited Kingston Pen some years after it opened in 1835 and described its solitary “as like being buried alive.”

It seems, as documented in Murder on the Inside, glaciers move faster in Canada than prison reform, and changes wanted by prisoners in federal lockups back in the 1970s sound eerily like the complaints being voiced today in one federal institution or another — lack of meaningful work, overcrowding, manhandling of prisoners by guards, the dehumanizing and degrading nature of life in a pen and the lack of preparation for freedom.

Fogarty’s chronicle of the KP riot is a comprehensive and action-packed explanation of what went right and wrong when 500 prisoners in the worn-out and under-staffed pen went rogue, kidnapped six guards, took control of a huge part of the institution for four agonizing days and did a million dollars in damage. And in a frenzy of frustration, a nasty cabal of prisoners savagely assaulted 16 fellow prisoners they hated: segregated sex offenders they chained together and nearly beat to death (one did later die, as did a second inmate).

Murder on the Inside is a shocking tale of sickening savagery and unrewarded heroics, and Fogarty details with growing confidence the unhealthy, sadistic straight-jacket life inside Kingston’s notorious maximum security prison 50 years ago, where the food was lousy, prisoners were locked in tiny cells for 16 hours a day, showered once a week, stood at attention when a guard addressed them (calling him “sir”) and never spoke without permission — if they did, it was off to solitary confinement. Fogarty saw that every day prisoners’ lives were so regimented, so predictable, so the same. Some grew violent, some retreated within as they felt their humanness slipping away.

The rioting prisoners didn’t get what they wanted. Canada’s solicitor-general, according to Fogarty, talked out of both sides of his mouth during negotiations with the prisoners and almost got the hostage guards killed. Guards at the Millhaven maximum security prison that had just opened took the rioting prisoners in after they surrendered — and allegedly beat them with clubs. For the first time in the history of Canada’s penal system, guards were charged with assaulting prisoners. They got off.

Prisoners at the time of the KP riot had a unique use of library books: they stacked them on the lid of their toilets so the rats couldn’t get up into their cells.

In 1973, Barry Craig spent time at the federal Prison for Women and the Collins Bay pen in Kingston while studying at Queen’s University on a fellowship in law awarded to him as a journalist.

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