Labour / Le Travail
Issue 86 (2020)

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Ted McCoy, Four Unruly Women: Stories of Incarceration and Resistance from Canada’s Most Notorious Prison (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2019)

Ted McCoy’s Four Unruly Women sheds light on some of the darkest moments of Kingston Penitentiary through the stories of four women incarcerated during the 19th and 20th centuries. Adopting a critical legal studies approach and a feminist framework, he invites us to look at the prison in a broader social context in order to understand how patriarchy shaped both Canadian law and penology in response to crime, gender, and marginality.

McCoy draws a gloomy picture of the everyday life at the penitentiary for the inmate population over the period from 1835 to 1935, using penitentiary records as his main source. The originality of his work stems from disciplinary reports produced by the administration on inmate infractions and the punishments inflicted to unruly prisoners, a source that contrasts with the dryness of usual penitentiary records and offers insight into human relationships inside. Bridget Donnelly, Charlotte Reveille, Kate Slattery, and Emily Boyle (pseudonym) are the four women McCoy chose to support his story. As the author warns us, these might be exceptional cases, but they illustrate what every woman incarcerated at Kingston could potentially face during their incarceration: corporal punishment, physical restraint, solitary confinement, a bread and water diet, and sexual violence.

McCoy’s biographical approach to these four lives also informs us about the development of the Canadian penitentiary system in relation to the development of industrial capitalism, and the elitist anxiety towards the working-class. McCoy’s book shows the extent to which patriarchy and paternalism were central to Canadian society and to the microcosm of the prison. McCoy’s effort to draw the portrait of the central figure of the matron is another of his original contributions to the understanding of women’s carceral environments. He shows unambiguously that far from embodying the maternal and caring ideal presented by reformers and penologists alike, she rarely protected women from prison abuses, including sexual abuses from male staff or other forms of torture. The matron was the women prisoners’ favourite target for insults and a plethora of other ruses, not only because she worked the closest with them but also because she was resented for her authority, being the one, more often than not, who denounced their misbehaviours and called for punishment.

McCoy’s most interesting contribution is undoubtedly the four biographies he presents in four successive chapters. At the centre of his storytelling lies their resistance and the acknowledgement they are, as Jackie Wang wrote, “subjects worthy of having a story of their own.” Bridget Donnelly’s entire adult life in and out prison exemplifies how poverty and incarceration were deeply intertwined, especially for immigrants to Canada during the 19th century. Her repeated stays at Kingston (and in local jails) for a variety of petty crimes mirror her continuing efforts to survive in times of dire needs.

With Charlotte Reveille’s story, McCoy explores issues of physical and mental health in confinement and how the carceral institution contributed to making individuals more vulnerable. In this chapter, McCoy exposes the complex figure of the prison surgeon and gives a glimpse on the medical experimentations to which prisoners were subject. McCoy highlights 19th-century debates in the medical field, especially when it came to “insanity” and shows how unscrupulous scientists used the penitentiary as a playing field in their dealings with individuals remote from public view and compassion.

Kate Slattery, an Irish immigrant like Donnelly and the third “incorrigible” character presented in the book, is another example of a petty criminal. Her repetitive disruptive behaviours at Kingston—shouting, insulting, and attacking other prisoners—were met with inhumane treatment, justified by the labels that prison officials imposed on her. Incarcerated at the end of the 19th century when recidivism became associated with a “criminological type” and coupled with the penitentiary abandoning the possibility of reformation, she was deemed incorrigible. Moreover, when her confinement ended, she was deported to Ireland at the expense of the Canadian Department of Justice, as she was deemed unfit in terms of Canada’s ideals of respectability and womanhood. Her story illustrates Canadian history of immigration laws and practices and finds an echo in today’s detention centres and deportations.

The last chapter is dedicated to a woman incarcerated in the 1930s pseudonamed Emily Boyle and introduces another difficult subject: prison babies. Arriving twice at Kingston while pregnant, Boyle confronted prison officials’ complex views on motherhood. Her second baby became the central issue in her dealings with the penitentiary officials; they suspected her of using her pregnancy to secure a parole and evade justice. Separated from her baby after the birth, she (and her husband) deployed repeated efforts to reunite while in custody. Boyle’s vision of maternal love and motherhood clashed not only with the maternalist approach of the prison, but also with the state’s interest in securing prisoners’ labour. Her case is also relevant today, because of the high proportion of mothers incarcerated in Canada and elsewhere and the challenges they face.

McCoy’s work demonstrates how the patriarchal authority represented by the warden and other prison officials was imposed through violence to correct women’s misbehaviours. The power imbalance inherent to prison settings makes abuse and suffering inevitable concludes McCoy, even if he does not go as far as Gwénola Ricordeau in her recent essay Pour elles toutes : femmes contre la prison in advocating prison abolition. McCoy addresses the issue of class and women’s incarceration but falls short when it comes to race and the disproportion of women of colour in Canadian prisons. Furthermore, it would have been interesting to write the biography of an Indigenous woman to address the ongoing situation of Indigenous women’s high incarceration rate in Canadian federal and provincial prisons. Seeing the development of the penitentiary as an instrument not only of industrial capitalism but also of settler colonialism would have allowed McCoy to grasp the “true nature of the beast” and even provide a better light on cases of immigrant women such as the ones he presents. Unruly women are and have been unfit to the settler project throughout the Americas, and many stories remain to be written on their resistance, including in carceral settings.

Nathalie Rech

Université du Québec à Montréal