At the Prison for Women, inmates gave our camera crew pins issued by the Elizabeth Fry Society: “I dreamed I visited the Prison for Women and no one was home.”I put the pin on my T-shirt in 1980, but the friends who gave it to me didn’t live to see the dream realized.
The notorious penitentiary has been called “unfit for bears” and a building that “should be sandblasted inside and out and turned into a free school.” It was recommended for closure just four years after it opened in 1932, and has been on the chopping block for as long as I can remember. On July 6, it was finally closed.
I first stepped inside its walls 20 years ago to make a documentary film (P4W: Prison For Women) with my creative partner, Holly Dale. I met 100 women who, like me, had heard the loud clang of the heavy steel doors closing behind them upon their entry. But unlike me, they didn’t experience the relief of leaving until their arrival had been long forgotten — sentences at P4W ranged from over two years to 25 without parole.
I was free to come and go for 19 days, and to bring a two-woman crew in with me.
On our final day, we shuffled through the halls, our emotions entangled by our attachment to the prison and the fact that we’d be leaving for good. The new acting warden, George Carron, had decided the film crew was no longer welcome. We didn’t shoot that day. Instead, we spent it saying goodbye to those we were leaving behind.
We gave them every bit of gaffer tape we had (to secure the area rugs in their cells). They gave us the pins.
Of the three inmates we got to know best, all are dead now, one perishing inside the prison.
They will not be forgotten. Nor will the emotional scars, self-mutilation, bloodshed and suicides that made P4W the barbarous hole it was. A 66-year history is not erased with the slam of a door.
Let’s hope this closure spurs the beginning of true reform for Canada’s incarcerated women. At least let there be a monument erected at the gate to mark the lives of the many women lost there.
Janis Cole has been making films for 25 years