Crime, punishment, and prison for women


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Kingston Penitentiary circa 1890, the low building close to the wall is part of the Female Department.

Susan Turner (21), Hannah Downes (17), and Hannah Baglen (25) were each convicted of theft.  They arrived at the new prison in Kingston on September 3, 1835, becoming the first women incarcerated in a penitentiary in Canada.

The Provincial Penitentiary of Upper Canada had opened its doors that June. In October, the three were put under the charge of Miss Ann Elmhirst, who was hired as the ‘Matron’ of the ‘Female Department.’

The women lived on the fourth floor of the first cell block, while the 65 or so male convicts [term at the time] occupied the rest of the building. In 1853, part of the north wing of the penitentiary became the ‘Female Convict Prison of the Provincial Penitentiary.’  

The 54 cells on the ground and second floor were the same dimensions as the men’s, 28 inches wide by 8 feet long by 6 feet 7 inches high. Each was equipped with a wooden bed, desk, and a bucket. The punishment cells were in the basement. The wing also had a dining hall, matron’s quarters, small female hospital, and work rooms. Women got fresh air and exercise in an attached triangular stone yard. 

Routines and daily life

Every day, the women woke, dressed, and were ready at attention when the cells were unlocked at 6:00 a.m. They wore long, blue and white striped uniform dresses with a dark check apron. The prisoners were paraded to the dining hall for breakfast, then paraded to the workshops. They worked until noon, stopped for lunch, then worked until evening when supper was served, then returned to their cells. 

Work was considered rehabilitative activity, so both men and women prisoners worked 10 hours a day. Women did work thought suitable for women, such as cleaning, laundry, and textile production. In 1853, the matron reported the female convicts made “shirts, drawers, bed-ticks, sheets, bedding, socks and stockings”—enough to clothe the 500 male and female convicts. 

If there was no work, prisoners spent 12 to 14 hours in their cells. Sundays, they worked half days and attended chapel.

Meals were prepared and served three times a day by the women inmates.  According to the 1849 annual report, the meals were of “inferior quality but sufficient quantity” and “wholesome”: oatmeal or millet, beans, black breads, stewed meats, root vegetables, and sauerkraut or cabbage. Milk was served once a week, but not much fruit.

The female hospital saw equal counts of childbirth and death. Epidemics of typhus or diphtheria killed many convicts throughout the 19th century. 

Two women stand in a hallway outside their prison cell circa 1900

Pneumonia was also very common in the 1840s due to inadequate heating and excessive damp. The surgeon was only involved if the matron felt an inmate was suitably sick. However, the women could submit their names for the sick parade and be considered for hospital treatment or medicine. 

Keeping track of prisoners

The prison kept a ledger where information with the inmate’s arrival, physical description, and their sentence, was recorded. For instance, 16-year-old Grace Marks arrived in November 1843. She is described in the ledger as 5 feet 4 inches, fair complexion, light brown hair. Grace was the first female “lifer,” given a life sentence for murder. She served 29 years and was released in 1872 at age 45. Grace is the main character in Margaret Atwood’s book, Alias Grace.

The youngest female inmate on record, nine-year-old Sarah Jane Pierce, was sentenced in 1878 to seven years at Kingston Pen for burglary. She broke into a house and stole a bonnet, water pitcher, quilt, some raisins, and beef. She served six years.

In 1845, the penitentiary’s chaplain, sympathetic with the needs of the female offenders, advocated a raise for the matron “to a position of equality with the warden.”  The warden made £375 a year, while the matron made just £50.20. The average guard was paid approximately £63. However, her salary was not increased.

After Confederation in 1867, three provincial penitentiaries came under federal jurisdiction: Halifax, Nova Scotia; Saint John, New Brunswick; and Kingston, Ontario (becoming Kingston Penitentiary). 

The building for women prisoners inside Kingston Penitentiary from 1913 to 1934 before the Prison for Women opened across the street.

The first two closed in 1880 when Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick opened. In 1885, women prisoners were transferred from Dorchester to Kingston Pen. By the 1920s, all women prisoners in Canada were transferred to Kingston.


Inmates were expected to be silent unless given permission to speak as part of their job. This rule was rigorously enforced. Almost all the misbehavior of female convicts consisted of foul language or ‘injurious speech.’

The matron reported a female inmate, but the warden ordered the punishment. It was either a small rawhide whip (like a horse crop) over the clothes or a heavy lash over the shift.  Or they were put in the ‘isolation’ box, a coffin-shaped, wooden box with a hole in the lid for air. Women were locked inside it from 15 minutes to nine hours. These punishments were generally public, as the lashing posts and boxes were kept in the dining hall.

The Brown Commission, an 1848 inquiry into the management of the prison, considered these inhumane and inappropriate punishment. Both practices were eliminated by 1849. Shaving the head, solitary confinement in dark cells, and bread and water diets for 24 to 72 hours became the regular punishment.

Education and conditions

Unlike male prisoners, women did not have their own school room. The women were self-educated in their cells from evening lockup until 9:00 p.m. School books, note pads, and pencils were issued for schooling. However, there are few records of the curricula, exercises, or tests. Many women inmates learned to read and write in prison.

Living conditions were not good. In 1847, women were moved from the north wing to the west wing due to an infestation of “bugs and vermin.” Until 1853, accommodations for women were often improvised or temporary.

As early as 1893, there were periodic calls for a women’s-only penitentiary. The proximity of the women and male prisoners was also a concern. In 1913, a physically separate women’s prison was constructed in the north-west angle of Kingston Penitentiary. A Royal Commission and RCMP investigation in 1920–1921, condemned a great deal about this women’s prison in Kingston Pen. It found the education poor; lack of newspapers and magazines; poorly ventilated workshops and cells; and the use of buckets for toilets. It also noted the “entirely too long and unnecessarily enforced period of being locked up.”  

Finally, in May 1925, construction began on a separate female prison beside the warden’s residence, across the street from the Kingston Pen. It was constructed by inmate work-crews. The Prison for Women opened in 1934. For 60 years, it was the only federal prison in the country for women.

The Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, was open from 1934 to 2000.

Canada’s Penitentiary Museum is an award-winning museum in Kingston, Ontario. It is dedicated solely to the preservation and interpretation of the history of our federal penitentiaries. 

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