|Agnes Macphail is remembered in the Kingston Penitentiary Telescope|
An uprising of prisoners in 1923 at the Kingston Penitentiary succeeded in
bringing Agnes Macphail's attention to the treatment of prisoners as a
neglected part of Canadian society. This ignited her campaign to reform
the prisons and in 1925 she set out against a wave of resistance to
revolutionize the governance of penitentiaries in one of the longest
battles she would fight.
After making a personal visit to the Kingston Penitentiary, Agnes Macphail realized that
the present administrative system was not designed to reform prisoners, but simply to punish and separate inmates from society. To right this, Macphail proposed that prison labour be instigated,
thereby saving the government thousands of dollars a year, reducing the financial burden on inmates' dependents, and giving prisoners a chance to learn trades and feel useful while serving their time. She pushed for reduced corporal punishment in favour of other disciplinary
actions, mandatory education for illiterate inmates, and an increase in
inmates' exercise and outdoor time, as well as encouraging their communication with
each other and their immediate relations. Her most challenging proposal for reform was to end military and political appointments to
penitentiary administration and to appoint, instead, superintendents with penology training,
medical doctors with psychological training, and to implement a system of training for guards and officials in the prisons.
Agnes Macphail experienced more than her share of resistance during her work for penitentiary reform,
so much that the reformations she had made between 1930 and 1935 were officially attributed to
someone else. The prisoners, however, recognized that Agnes Macphail was the true reformer. The Penitentiary Bill of 1939 contained 88 recommendations that fulfilled her intentions, to "give us a penal system which reforms as well as disciplines the anti-social members of society confined in prison" (Weekly letter, Durham Review, March 30, 1939, excerpted in Pennington, p.207).