A remarkable and disturbing snippet of video that documents a sad chapter in Canada’s penitentiary history has debuted online, thanks to Brian Judge, a former producer with a groundbreaking cable television program in Kingston, Ontario that was created by federal prisoners and operated from 1991 to 1997. The video centres on events in April 1994, when a riot squad of male prison guards, dressed in black, wielding batons and shields, grabbed eight female prisoners from segregation cells at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. The women were stripped naked, searched, handcuffed and dressed in paper gowns.
The unprecedented strip search was captured on video by the riot squad itself, part of its protocol to document its work. When portions of the video were broadcast by the CBC’s Fifth Estate television program 10 months later, it touched off a national outcry and led to a commission of inquiry that condemned the culture of Corrections Canada and its actions in April. The commissioner, Justice Louise Arbour concluded that Corrections Canada broke the law in many respects and violated its own rules (her complete report archived here). The video is troubling, but crucial to understanding what happened and as evidence of what was claimed. Until the video became public, no one believed the complaints of the women prisoners who said they had been stripped naked by a all-male riot squad (though some women were present). The video put the truth to the lie that it had not happened and that the women – criminals after all – were exaggerating what had happened. This marks the first appearance, as far as I can tell, of this video online anywhere, thanks to Brian Judge, who has cracked open the Contact TV show archive and has begun to pour that trove of remarkable video onto the net at his new website, PrisonTV. Contact was a remarkable show. Though the episodes were often slow-moving and and technically primitive, they offered an unprecedented look at life behind bars, through the lens of those confined there. It’s the kind of valuable insight sorely lacking today, in a Correctional atmosphere controlled by political powers in Ottawa. There are plenty of other fascinating videos on the PrisonTV site now – everything from an explanation of how staff deal with knives in an inmate-run kitchen to an intimate interview with Litton Systems bomber Brent Taylor. Judge tells me there are many more videos to come, as he digitizes and uploads the material. Judge has provided only a portion of the P4W strip-search episode and footage of events days later when female prisoners were shackled and taken to nearby Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum-security men’s penitentiary. That decision also was condemned by Arbour’s final report.
The strip-searching of the female prisoners was a key, culminating event in a sequence of troubles at the Prison for Women. On April 22, four days earlier, six prisoners had attacked four staff members, threatening to kill them in an apparent escape plot. The inmates were quickly subdued and segregated. The final Arbour report also documents that event in detail.
The federal government closed the Prison for Women in 2000 and most of the 18-foot tall concrete wall that surrounded the complex of buildings has been torn down. Queen’s University bought the property in 2008 but it has not yet made any efforts to renovate the buildings and begin using them.