Members of the P4W Memorial Collective, a group including former inmates at the Prison for Women, academics and other supporters, are hoping the new seniors retirement development planned for the property will feature a memorial garden outside the former prison to honour the women who died in custody between 1934 and 2000.
The collective would also like to create a gallery space inside the former prison to share artwork and stories from former prisoners and to ensure the history of the prison is not forgotten, a statement said.
Lisa Guenther, a Queen’s University national scholar in political philosophy and critical prison studies, said in the statement the group has yet to hear from the developers of the site.
It was reported on Friday that Signature Retirement Living would build a residence on the site. Specific plans for the 3.27-hectare property have yet to be disclosed, including if all or any of the existing prison building at Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard and Union Street will be included.
The building has a heritage designation that protects its exterior and some of its interior features, a report from the City of Kingston said.
“The news came as a surprise to members of the P4W Memorial Collective,” Guenther wrote in a news release. “The collective has been fighting since the prison closed in 2000 to create a memorial garden for women who died at P4W and in prisons across Canada.
The prison closed following recommendations by the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women in 1990 and the Arbour Report in 1996.
The news release said former prisoners are uniquely qualified to design a memorial garden that meets the needs of the community as a whole.
Since ABNA Investment Ltd. purchased the site in 2018, the collective has met once with company officials, but subsequent meetings have been denied or postponed, the release said.
“We want to design a garden to remember the women, and we also want to create a room inside the building to explain the history of the prison. We’re not there to take over the eight acres. We just want to be acknowledged,” Fran Chaisson, a former inmate at the prison and a founding member of the collective, said in a statement.
“I feel like we have been kept in the dark throughout the whole development process. ABNA never brought us to the table to share any of our ideas about the memorial garden. So this is where we stand. We have been waiting for almost a year and a half for a meeting, and we still don’t have a say in what happens to P4W,” she said.
The release said that between December 1988 and February 1991, seven women died by suicide in P4W. Six of these women were Indigenous. In April 1994, a conflict between prisoners and guards was suppressed by an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team, whose members stripped the women naked and left them shackled on the floor for six hours.
“Different uses like retirement housing, if done right, are things we can accept,” the release said. “But let’s not forget that it’s a prison, that thousands of people were confined in poor conditions for years, and many died there due to their suffering. We are asking for a memorial garden and for a room in the development to display information about the site as a shuttered prison. It needs to be addressed. Making the building and (literally toxic) grounds now fit for human habitation won’t change what it is.”
In an interview on Monday, Guenther said she doesn’t think the Kingston community would stand for the developer to ignore the prison’s past.
“It’s not just another building — Another limestone building on prime real estate,” she said. “It has, as they say, a challenging history, and the way to deal with that history is to not look away from the challenges and try to just sweep them under the rug, but actually engage with the poetry and art and the beautiful, creative work that women who were imprisoned in P4W created for their own survival.”