Woman in Chains

Stories of Kingston’s Notorious Prison for Women

A nineteen-year-old chokes herself to death in an Ontario prison cell in October 2007 while her guards watch. Ashley Smith, a juvenile delinquent who was first jailed for throwing apples at a postal worker, has become the latest face of female inmate abuse in Canada.

“There’s a stigma with women specifically that you see in the news,” says Julia Ainsworth, director and playwright of Unfit for Bears: Beyond the Wall of Canada’s Prison for Women, a new work by the Zeitgeist Theatre Collective with a focus on female prisoners.

“Incarcerated women are sensationalized. And there’s this idea that, when a woman commits a crime, it’s worse than when a man commits a crime.”

Unfit for Bears focuses on stories from the infamous Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston, ON. The maximum security facility stood for nearly seventy years as the only federal women’s prison in the country.

The last abuse scandal to come out of P4W happened when an all-male riot squad entered the facility one night as the women slept. The men strip-searched and chained six of the female inmates. They were left nearly naked on the cement floor for over 12 hours. Those targeted had been involved in a confrontation with guards a few days earlier. The purpose of the raid was terrorizing them into submission.

The event reached the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations. The following year, prisoners began being transferred out of the notorious P4W, and in 2000 the controversial prison was closed.

Ainsworth, who was attending Queen’s University in Kingston at the time, became curious about the deserted building across the street from her campus. She convinced a guard overseeing the property to give her a tour and became inspired.

“Inside the empty prison you could just feel the energy, and feel the stories,” said Ainsworth. She set out to get personal accounts of what life was like inside P4W—but finding former inmates and guards proved challenging.

After unsuccessfully trying to reach individuals through classified ads and Craigslist, she stumbled on a Facebook group for P4W survivors. A few of its members were glad to have their stories heard and the challenge became “to find the proper balance of merging theatre’s need for a narrative with these individuals’ experiences.”

As Stephen Harper’s Conservative government pushes a tough-on-crime agenda that includes tougher minimum sentences and the expansion of our prison system, a production about suffering inmates could be seen as an attempt to sway public opinion. Ainsworth insists that personal politics are not a part of the show. The goal instead is to get audience members thinking and asking questions.

“This play is not black and white… I want people to leave the theatre asking themselves how they feel. Every audience member will have their own personal response,” she said.

Zeitgeist Theatre Collective seeks out site-specific spaces and is presenting _Unfit for Bears _in the converted warehouse Les Ateliers Jean-Brillant (3550 St. Jacques St. W., Metro Lionel-Groulx) and runs until Sept. 24. More info at zeitgeisttheatrecollective.com