Memorial garden at former women's prison takes root

Former inmates of the shuttered Prison For Women in Kingston, Ont., are pushing for a memorial garden at the site, where a developer is planning to construct a new mixed-use building.

Former P4W prisoners have approached developer with proposal to honour 'fallen sisters'

Fran Chaisson, who helped found the P4W Memorial Collective after two stints at the prison, believes it's important to remember the women who died there. (Lisa Kannakko)

Former inmates of the shuttered Prison For Women in Kingston, Ont., are pushing for a memorial garden at the site, where a developer is planning to construct a new mixed-use building.

The former inmates say the garden is important to honour the checkered history of the prison and the women who took their own lives there while it operated from the mid-1930s to 2000. Seven women died over a two-year period from December 1988 to February 1991, and six of them were Indigenous.

A task force was appointed in 1989 to look into the prison's operations — it was then the only federal correctional facility for women — and in 1990 a report was released calling for sweeping changes and more facilities. In 1996, one year after a strip search video from P4W, as the prison became known, was made public, an inquiry by Madam Justice Louise Arbour again called for substantive change.

Four years later, the last of P4W's prisoners were transferred to new facilities.

Honouring 'fallen sisters'

Ann Hansen, 64, was incarcerated at the prison for participating in bombings in the 1980s while a member of The Squamish Five, also known as Direct Action, a group of activists who believed non-violent resistance was ineffective.

Hansen was sentenced to life and served seven years at Kingston's P4W. She was released in the early 1990s and has kept in touch with other former inmates, including Fran Chaisson.

Anne Hansen, a former P4W inmate, says the developer is open to the idea of a memorial garden at the prison site. (Supplied)

Together they helped found the P4W Memorial Collective in 2015, and alongside others petitioned the prison site's former owner, Queen's University, to build a small memorial garden in front of the prison.

Chaisson — who served two stints at P4W, first for assaulting police and later for attempted murder — is the driving force behind the garden, and feels it's necessary to honour her "fallen sisters."

An open letter and petition by the collective calls for a memorial garden on a plot of land in front of the former administration building. A proposal is still being worked out, but could include a couple of benches, a small monument created by an Indigenous person, and the names of the women who died at the prison, Hansen said.

Developer seems open to idea

Hansen said they're not opposed to the commercialization of the valuable parcel of land in downtown Kingston, saying it would be a "monumental struggle to prevent that from happening." But they're hoping the prison's heritage will be maintained and its history "will not be completely erased."

​ABNA Investments Ltd., based in Odessa, Ont., recently stepped forward with a plan to buy the prison from Queen's and redevelop it.

The former Prison For Women, or P4W, in Kingston, Ont., could become a student residence and hotel in the summer months. (Google Street View)

Company owner Hank Doornekamp said the plans are also preliminary, but include a new mixed residential and commercial building that will "complement" the architectural and historical character of the prison. Possible uses for the actual prison building, which has heritage protections both inside and out, include a possible student residence and hotel in the summer months.

The garden collective has met with Nate Doornekamp, who is spearheading the prison redevelopment project, and Hansen said he seemed open to the idea.

"We were impressed with his sincerity about being supportive of putting up a memorial," she said. "He seemed like he was willing to co-operate with us."

Doornekamp did not immediately respond to a request for comment last week.

The collective is planning a healing circle at the prison site on Aug. 10.