Prison for Women Closes

Shortly after 9 a.m. last May 8, Theresa Ann Glaremin, a 50-year-old from Newfoundland, earned a minor footnote in history. Three federal corrections officers put Glaremin in a car and drove away from Kingston, Ont.

Prison for Women Closes

Shortly after 9 a.m. last May 8, Theresa Ann Glaremin, a 50-year-old from Newfoundland, earned a minor footnote in history. Three federal corrections officers put Glaremin in a car and drove away from Kingston, Ont., with the convicted murderer - the last inmate to be transferred out of the nation's notorious Prison for Women. This week, Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay will decommission the 66-year-old prison in a ceremony reminiscent of a bishop de-sanctifying a church. The forbidding stone and concrete structure will be mothballed until the government decides what to do with it, but few will mourn its passing. "It was an impossible building," says Faith Davis, former president of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Kingston, a female inmate support agency. "Everything was made of metal and there was this enormous clanging all the time."

It took more than noise, however, to finally persuade Ottawa 10 years ago to replace the Prison for Women with five regional - and radically different - institutions across the country. The Elizabeth Fry Society had long lobbied vigorously for change, partly on the grounds that roughly half of the prisoners' families lived too far away to make morale-boosting visits. Several investigations over the years had criticized conditions at the Prison for Women (known as P4W in the correctional community). Then, in 1994, the widely publicized strip-searching of inmates by a male SWAT team led to a federal inquiry that condemned the "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of the women.

Trish Crawford, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, first visited the prison in the mid-1980s. "My immediate reaction," she recalls, "was that it was not unlike a high-need mental-health facility. There was a lot of violence; in the early 1990s, we had six suicides in two years." Lori MacDonald, the prison's last deputy warden, estimates that 90 per cent of the inmates were substance abusers. (Visitors regularly tried to smuggle drugs to inmates in hollowed-out books, resealed soup cans - even hollow boot heels.)

Three of the new institutions to replace P4W were opened in late 1995 at Truro, N.S., Edmonton and Maple Creek, Sask. The remaining two, at Joliette, Que., and Kitchener, Ont., followed in 1997. By then, P4W's population - once 150 - was down to about 20 maximum security inmates destined for Kitchener. Their transfers were delayed when they launched a court action against Correctional Services, which wanted to put them into the regional treatment centre at the all-male Kingston Penitentiary until Kitchener's maximum security wing could be built (it will be finished next year). Correctional Services ultimately dropped the idea, reclassified the women as medium security and shipped them off to Kitchener anyway.

The reform of the system was not universally popular. For one thing, many inmates had been in Kingston so long they did not want to leave - even though one of the objectives was to put them closer to their families. For another, the prospect of having convicted drug dealers, armed robbers and murderers in their midst stirred protests in some communities across Canada.

At the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, neighbourhood opposition diminished after an inmate-conducted public tour of the nine suburban-style bungalows, where inmates have their own rooms, TV sets and kitchens, do their own cooking and cleaning, and the guards are called "primary workers." (At night, however, the kitchen knives are locked up and the front-door alarms are activated.) "For women who have been dependent on the old style of corrections, where you were told what to do and when to do it, this is a difficult change," says assistant warden Marion Evans.

Part of the reason may be the memories of P4W, good and bad. Some inmates claim Grand Valley offers fewer opportunities to acquire skills that would be useful on the outside. "At the Prison for Women, we had woodworking, we had a print shop, we had typesetting, we had painting," says Debbie Dupuis, serving a life sentence for murder with no parole for 14 years. But there are also memories of a different kind. "P4W was one of the scariest places I ever walked into," says Chantal, 34, from Toronto, who is serving life for second-degree murder and asked that her last name be withheld. "It was two years of disrespect, women slashing themselves on the wrists, arms and neck - and suicides."

Other inmates were the target of violence. Bonnie Nash-Levy, 36, from Fredericton is doing 14 years for two armed robberies. She first wound up at Kingston, also for armed robbery, when she was 18. (That experience kept her out of trouble until 1998, when she held up a bingo hall with an unloaded sawed-off shotgun.) "There was this woman doing 10 years for marijuana and she followed me constantly," Nash-Levy says. "One day I blew up and told her to leave me alone. Well, she got three buddies and they raped me shortly after that. I started the buddy system. There was this nice young girl called Shelly, in for manslaughter. Her and I were always together because if there were two of us they couldn't get us."

Some felt compelled to fight. "One day I was confronted by two prisoners," says Glaremin. "One had a kettle of boiling water and the other had a shank [a home-made knife]. I was going to be hit so I ducked and swung and all the person's teeth fell out. When the girl with the kettle saw that, she dropped it and ran away. The other girl grabbed me around the neck and I had to bite her to get free."

Next door to P4W, at the intersection of Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway and King Street West, is the Correctional Service of Canada museum. It occupies a 127-year-old gabled granite building that once was the home of the warden of Kingston Penitentiary, which looms across King Street. The journals, exhibits and official records collected by museum curator David St. Onge are a window into the dismal history of women behind bars in Canada - a history far older than P4W.

In the 19th century, women served their sentences in squalid and overcrowded city and county jails. Then, on June 1, 1835, the province of Upper Canada opened Kingston Penitentiary for men and women, quartering the latter in 29-inch-wide, vermin-infested cells in a separate building. "There are references in the records," says St. Onge, "of screaming in the night." Four years later, Eunice Whiting, 17, and Rhoda Morrison, 16, became the first women to go over the prison's walls. They were captured the next day, but Whiting later became a local celebrity; in 1842, during a North American tour, novelist Charles Dickens visited the Kingston prison where he met and later wrote about Whiting, the only female horse thief there at the time.

The separation of the sexes was not a total success. "In the late 1860s, a male inmate was found 'communicating' with female inmates in the basement of the female wing of the prison," St. Onge says. "He got six dozen lashes." The lash and other devices were used frequently for decades (the lash survived until the 1960s). Women endured up to nine hours of solitary confinement on their feet inside a vertical coffin-like box. Age made no difference. St. Onge's 19th-century records tell of a 12-year-old girl who was lashed 37 times on the back of the neck. A nine-year-old called Sara Jane Pierce, the youngest female inmate on record (the youngest male was 7), was sentenced to seven years for stealing a quill pen, a bonnet, a water pitcher, and raisins and biscuits from the home of a prominent Brockville, Ont., businessman. Her head was shaved and she was spanked by the matron.

Against this background, Ottawa - prodded for decades by reformers - began building the Prison for Women in 1925. Using convict labour, the project took seven years and cost nearly $375,000. The first inmates moved in on Jan. 24, 1934. Their uniforms were two dresses in a coarse blue and white fabric, bloomers with elastic at the waist and legs, but no brassieres. In recent years, the women have been allowed to wear jeans and tops.

For some, prison became home. Davis remembers a girl who pitched for the softball team until she was paroled. "Two months later, she was back," she recalls. "I said, 'What are you doing here,' and she said, 'The softball season starts in two weeks and I'm the pitcher.' " Now, the prison is empty, except for Lori MacDonald and a skeleton staff, who have been cataloguing and disposing of P4W's contents. Some of the items will end up in other federal institutions, and the remainder will likely be auctioned. "I walked through the place today," MacDonald says, "and it's a lifeless, silent, empty building." There will be no more screams in the night.

Maclean's July 10, 2000