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BC Pen Riots 1934-1976 (By Michael Barnholden)

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.

Taken from “Reading The Riot Act” (Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2005)

reposted from:

In his official dispatches, Warden W.H. Cooper liked to use the french word émeute , meaning uprising or riot, to describe disturbances in the British Columbia Penitentiary. Following forced retirement from his position as head of the Vancouver relief department for untoward behaviour in 1928, Cooper had returned to the job as warden in 1932. On his watch, riots were soon to become a common subject of discussion both in New Westminster and Ottawa.

In General, prisons are instruments in the class war. The poor are disproportionately represented, as are Aboriginals. This means that the prison population is poorly educated, underemployed, in poor mental and physical health – in other words, marginalized. As outsiders, prisoners have literally nothing left to lose, yet they organize into effective and powerful prisoner’s rights groups to negotiate with determination and fortitude for their basic human rights. It is only when they perceive that the social code in which they believe strongly has completely broken down, i.e., legitimate demands with respect to human rights and dignity are not respected, that violent confrontation ensues. Prisoners are humans, with all the basic rights that humans are entitled to. They have committed crimes and have accepted their punishment, but in no way do they give up their essential humanity, which is so often denied them in this enactment of capitalism’s penultimate sanction for faulty participation. It is an example of one class of people being oppressed by the agents of capital.

On September 1st, 1934, seven prisoners refused the work they had been assigned in the mailbag room and were promptly marched back to their cells. Cooper put it down to a desire for more comfortable conditions, but The New Westminster Columbian newspaper added the claim that the convicts wanted wages for their labour in addition to improvements in the lives of men doing hard time in the B.C. Pen. Despite quick action by the warden, protests did not stop; in fact they grew. By the tenth of September, The Columbian reported seventy-eight prisoners were refusing to go to work (the warden claimed it was only seventy-three). They could be heard clearly from outside the prison, shouting over and over “wages, wages, wages.” This, as well as hurling torrents of abuse at the prisoners who chose to work, went on for three days. The warden reported 182 broken windows, 6 smashed toilets, and many broken tables, chairs and beds. The ringleaders were paddled, though the number of times is not mentioned. Beginning on January 1st, 1935, the federal government ordered that convicts who worked should be paid five cents per diem. This was the first riot in the almost sixty-year history of the B.C. Pen, but not it’s last. Although riots were infrequent events, on the inside, they were momentous occasions directly echoing events on the outside.

“…prisons are the way we deal with our poor, our minority groups, and our unemployed, we tolerate them at our peril.” – Clare Culhane, No Longer Barred From Prison

On April 20th, 1963, three prisoners were seen trying to escape through the auditorium windows by a guard patrolling with a dog. When the convicts refused to stop, he fired three shots. The prisoners replied by throwing homemade Molotov cocktails at both the guard and the dog. The light bulbs, filled with gasoline, exploded but missed the target. One of the inmates was badly burned when his cocktail exploded in his face. The three prisoners then retreated into the auditorium, where they took a guard hostage and locked themselves in with fifteen other prisoners who had been left on the premises when the action started. One volunteered to act as doorman. The hostage-takers’ first demand was to call in television personality, talk-show host, and self-proclaimed defender of the little guy, Jack Webster, to negotiate on their behalf. For Webster’s part, his best hope for any solution seemed to be that the prisoners would swallow too much “bug juice”, the liquid tranquilizer supplied by the prison doctor as demanded, and nod off. Unfortunately for him, the prisoners could read and noticed the little warning on the bottle that taking too many could cause drowsiness. Some of the prisoners outside the auditorium refused to return to their cells and began wandering around breaking windows and smashing anything they could, in addition to starting fires, while the guards set about securing the rest of the prison.

The RCMP riot squad and troops from Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack were called in to restore order. Wearing gas masks and firing tear gas canisters, they managed to get all but the hostage takers back to their cells. The three were still holding the guard, meeting with Webster in the washroom of the auditorium and preparing for an attack. The prisoners, referring to Warden Hall and the guards as Nazis, seemed to fear doing time in “the hole” more than anything else and in the end their only demand was that they be transferred out of the Pen, a request which was granted for all three. Unfortunately no change was made to either the use or condition of the hole.

In June of 1970, a twelve-member parliamentary justice committee condemned the B.C. Pen as “ancient, medieval, outmoded and ill-equipped.” After the death of an inmate in August of the same year, about three hundred prisoners – dissatisfied with the official report of cause of death – refused to return to their cells after exercise and began throwing rocks and recreation equipment- such as horseshoes and baseball bats – at the guards. Some officers were hit and the windshields of police cars parked outside were smashed. The convicts charged the ten-foot-high fence and lit fires. More than two hundred guards and police were called in, while troops stood by on full alert in Chilliwack. The prisoners were demanding an end to skin searches and they wanted to be able to appear before the justice committee to air their complaints about the Pen and it’s notorious “hole.” At three the next morning, the riot squad went into action, tossing tear gas canisters into the yard, forcing about two hundred inmates into their cells. The rest had backed up to the wall to avoid the gas and had to be subdued with blasts of water from high pressure hoses.

On the following Sunday, a Yippie-sponsored protest march from Queen’s Park in New Westminster loudly demonstrated in support of the prisoners and tossed cigarettes, candies and other goodies over the fence, including a Brazilian book on guerrilla resistance tactics.

The Columbian reported on Saturday October 6th, 1973, that a ten-hour rebellion with much attendant damage had been quelled.  Apparently, the incident was over the resignation of the recently formed Inmates Committee, which was supposed to be able to take inmate complaints directly to the penitentiary director, the new name for the warden. The guards were also unhappy , but blamed overcrowding, requesting that the population be reduced to four hundred and fifty from six hundred.

These two complaints were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Escapes and hostage takings were on the rise, highlighting a sharp division between corrections officers (guards) and classification officers (social workers) about the way prisoners should be treated. This also mirrored the public debate as to whether prisoners retained basic human rights upon their incarceration.

The June 9th, 1975 hostage-taking by three inmates and the subsequent killing of classification officer Mary Steinhauser, which occurred when marksmen stormed the vault  where the prisoners were barricaded, placed the debate back on the front pages. In the negotiation phase of the hostage taking, two unusual demands, in addition to the ever-popular request for drugs, were made. The original demand was to be flown to Algeria, the site of exile Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. The inmates also wanted a member of the Communist Party of Canada Marxist-Leninist wing included on the negotiation team. As the coroner’s jury pointed out, the main cause of the action was the fear on the part of the inmates spending anymore time in the “hole.”Or, as one of the hostage-takers put it, “going back to solitary confinement was a 100% chance of ending up dead…taking hostages was a 95% chance of dying and a 5% chance of getting out.”

“Canada doesn’t have to execute people anymore, just sentence them to neglect.” – Allan Fotheringham, Maclean’s, October 18th, 1976

In 1974, nine inmates from the B.C. Pen launched a suit against the Crown on the grounds that confinement in “the hole”  was cruel  and unusual punishment and contrary to the Canadian Bill of Rights. The administration’s name for the hole (AKA the Penthouse or the Fraserview Hilton) was the Special Correction Unit (SCU), which had been built in 1963 on the roof of Cell Block B-7 to replace the old hole in the basement of the prison. The four tiers of eleven cells each were used for three different types of “dissociation” – punitive, administrative (i.e. failure to cooperate), or very rarely, voluntary, and protective for men who could not enter the general population. In practice, other than radio library and canteen privileges which could be enjoyed away from other inmates, all privileges were denied: no hobbies, no television, no movies, no workshops, little or no exercise, and closed visits.

“When laws seriously encroach on human rights, they should be violated.” – Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy

The punitive cells on “F” tier, where prisoners were placed for punishment, measured six-foot-six by eleven-feet-two inches deep, with grey painted concrete walls broken only by a solid steel door complete with a six-inch square security window. The bed was a four inch thick concrete riser covered with a sheet of plywood and a four inch thick foam mattress. Prisoners were supplied with a foam pillow, two blankets and two sheets. The bedding, including the mattress, was removed during the day. Each cell had a combination sink and toilet,  an air vent for heat and ventilation and a radio speak. There was no volume or temperature control available to the inmates. A recessed light in the ceiling burned twenty-four hours per day, with a 116-watt bulb during the day and twenty-five watts at night. Prisoners were also required to sleep with their heads toward the door, thus near the toilet bowl for security reasons. The longest consecutive time spent in the hole was 754 days. This has been compared to “being buried alive in an all-steel pressure cooker.”

No reason needed to be given for punitive dissociation and many activist prisoners who were considered “trouble makers” ended up on the roof. The prisoners thought that the administration, as one of them testified, “was killing us mentally, not physically.” An expert defense witness, a criminologist, said, “it is a form of murder.” Another described the hole as “a tomb within a tomb.”

Mr. Justice Herald of the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the prisoners and held that the hole was indeed cruel and unusual punishment and contrary to the Bill of Rights, but refused to act on the second part of the suit and issue an order compelling the director to act on his findings. Soon after the ruling was handed down, the director of the B.C. Penitentiary announced that the “Penthouse” would be immediately modified to fuction within the court ruling, but dissociation in the new Super Maximum Security Unit (SMSU) would continue. And continue it did, with dire consequences.

“The B.C. Pen ‘Comes Down” – Vancouver Sun

In the summer of 1967, 380 of the 450 prisoners housed in the B.C. Pen joined a twenty four hour nationwide hunger strike with the newfound support of prisoner’s rights groups acting on the outside, to protest solitary confinement. Meanwhile the ban by guards was met by the director of the Pen, who declared a twelve-day state of emergency, entitling him to order the unionized guards to work overtime. The guards, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), had a list of twenty-four demands, including cutting back on inmate recreation time, open visits, and the institution of surprise searches. Though their union, the guards also put everyone on notice that they would run the institution as they saw fit and if that meant more lock-up time for inmates, then so be it.

The complete list was characterized as non-negotiable and contained conditions that could only have one outcome. That was the infamous B.C. Pen Riot, which had been promised for nearly thirty years. The prisoners would later claim that they had accomplished in twelve hours what the Federal Government couldn’t do in fifty years.

Tensions between guards and prisoners were escalating. The Inmate Committee had spent the previous two months in a letter writing campaign with over a hundred letters going to Ottawa with no response. Included was a letter to The Vancouver Sun signed by over two-hundred B.C. Pen prisoners asking that Security (PSAC guards) be placed outside the fence with whatever weaponry they deemed necessary to prevent escapes, so long as they were moved out of the inner operations of the prison. This would thus reduce the danger they were exposed to, the overtime they were forced to work and the turmoil they used to justify their position. Sometime during the third week in September, the Inmate Committee passed notes on two consecutive shifts asking for a meeting to try and work things out. The prisoners felt the mostly older, hard-line guards had prevented any negotiations by intimidating sympathetic guards into remaining quiet. No such meeting ever took place.

Writing of the Criminal Justice System “…it works systematically not to punish and confine the dangerous and criminal, but to punish and confine the poor who are dangerous and criminal.” Jeffery H. Reimer, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison

Shortly after three on September 27th, 1976, as prisoners were being let out of their cells for showers, they overan the 240-cell East Wing and began to destroy the cell block, tearing out bars, wedging open doors and forcing guards to evacuated the area and attempt to contain the riot to this one section. At about seven in the evening, ten inmates invaded the kitchen and took two guards hostage. As the inmates smashed everything they could, the rest of the prison, including the hole, was relatively quiet. The final tally would include twenty-five of ninety-five cells in the North Wing destroyed, fifty of 110 in B-7 destroyed and two hundred in the East Block destroyed.

The newly formed Citizen’s Advisory Committee was to receive its first test. A small group of appointed politicians, lawyers, criminologists, and journalists all interested in prison reform issues were joined by prison reform activist Clare Culhane. As many of the nine-member group as could be contacted were called to the prison to serve as intermediaries between the Inmates Committee – who now controlled most of the penitentiary – and the Administration. In all, six were able to attend. Meanwhile, two six-man RCMP tactical squads of sharp shooters were moved into position. They were joined by thirty eight riot squad officers and others were to follow.

The inmates initially demanded dexedrine for themselves and tranquilizers for the hostages. They were adamant that the Citizen’s Advisory Committee be present, as they desperately watched to avoid a repeat of the Mary Steinhauser hostage-taking incident. This was to be the first time ever for a group of citizens to take an active role during an actual crisis. The next day, Clare Culhane was forced to resign from the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and she agreed in order to allow negotiations to begin. Culhane was at odds with the rest of those on the committee who were present. They refused to issue a statement outlining some of the horrors they had seen on the guided tour the Inmate Committee had taken them on when they first entered the prison after the riot. The most contentious issue appeared to be the guards venting their rage by hosing down SMSU prisoners, depriving them of food, clothing, and heat. Eventually, male members of the CAC were allowed upstairs to view conditions in the hole with the IC, where they observed several inches of water on the cell floors and prisoners in their underwear or naked.

At least twice during the incident, the CAC was advised to leave the area as security was going to be restored by troops and police with clubs and tear gas. Their refusal to back down probably prevented loss of life, as certainly many prisoners would had said they were ready to die.

Shortly before six in the morning, the Inmates Committee issued a statement blaming the administration and guards for failing to meet with them and resolve outstanding issues, particularly around segregation of inmates. Meanwhile, heavily armed troops from CFB Chilliwack began to take up positions around the prison parimeter. Late the next day prisoners released one hostage in a show of good faith and in order to be allowed to meet with the media and publicize their grievances. Bad food, poor programs, and guards who resisted change and provoked confrontation to back up their contract demands headed the list. The Inmate Committee wanted to be able to meet with prisoners in the SMSU or hole at the prisoners’ request or be allowed a weekly interview in order to ensure the prisoners being held in administrative dissociation were being treated properly. Mail tampering would be stopped, the inmate committee would be allowed to continue, transfers would be granted and there would be no reprisals. The media was allowed to visit what was essentially a demolition site with a hand painted “under new managament” sign in red on bed sheets that had been hung from the bars. Another banner hung on the bars read “Solidarity.” According to Clare Culhane,  this was never mentioned in any media report.

The Inmate Committee and the Citizen’s Advisory Committee continued to negotiate with the deputy director and his team. Talks continued until 3 a.m. Thursday, when a partial breakthrough was announced; however, it was not until one the next morning when a nine-point agreement was reached, bringing an end to the riot. Early on the morning of October 2nd, 1976, the members of the Citizens Advisory Council left the B.C. Pen.

Three days later, an open letter was released by the Commissioner of Penitentiaries stating that it was up to the “Canadian Penitentiary Service discretion whether the so-called Agreement is to be honoured in full, or in part, or at all.” Not much later CAC was gutted, becoming than an extension of the John Howard Society, a prisoner advocacy group.

The East Wing was to be partially repaired at a cost of $500,000, in order to bring the population back up to 412 from the 316 it had been since the end of the riot. The next summer, there were hunger strikes protesting the lack of open visitation and the conditions in the hole, but never again would there be a riot of these proprtions in the B.C. Pen, as it would cease operation in 1980.

One of the last incidents at the B.C Pen involved a hostage-taking which ended up with two of the hostages being charged as accomplices. The two women were acquitted, with the crux of the court case resting on the right or obligation of prisoners to use any means available to escape solitary confinement, which had been declared cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Canadian Bill of Rights.

The last word on the riot belongs to one of the hostage takers at his sentencing hearing, at which he blamed guards demanding better pay and job security for the riot. Refusing to prepare a defence he declared, “When inmates in a prison can no longer negotiate peacefully to have their complaints and grievances heard by Ottawa and the public, then they will do it violently because they know you understand violence.”

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Reading the Riot Act

I would definitely recommend reading Michael Barnholden's "Reading the Riot Act: A Short History of Riots in Vancouver" in its entirety. It's only 144 pages, is an easy read, and uses a class analysis to look at a variety of 'riots': the anti-Asian riot of 1907, the Wobbly free speech actions in the early 1900s, occupations during the Depression, the prison riots, the Gastown and Rolling Stones riots in the early 1970s, the Stanley Cup riot of '94, anti-APEC mobilizations...

The Vancouver library has multiple copies, including an electronic one (but you still need to sign in with your card or be there to read it online, I think). Several of the other libraries (Burnaby, Surrey, etc) also have copies.

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