JUSTICE

DEATH BEHIND BARS

THE SYSTEM AND SOCIETY FAILED MARLENE MOORE, WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE IN THE PRISON FOR WOMEN

May 20 1991
JUSTICE

DEATH BEHIND BARS

THE SYSTEM AND SOCIETY FAILED MARLENE MOORE, WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE IN THE PRISON FOR WOMEN

May 20 1991

DEATH BEHIND BARS

JUSTICE

By the time she committed suicide in the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont., in 1988, at the age of 31, Marlene Moore had been labelled an incorrigible criminal. Indeed, in 1985, Moore became the first woman in Canada—and remains the only one—to be declared a “dangerous offender, ” subject to indefinite imprisonment. In their new book, Rock-A-Bye Baby, National Newspaper Award-winning journalists Anne Kershaw and Mary Lasovich contend that Moore was more of a threat to herself than to society. Sent to the federal prison for the first time in 1977, after a hostage-taking incident in an Ontario jail, Moore, like many of the more than 200 female offenders in Kingston ’s bleak “P4W, ” as it is commonly known, was a victim of physical and sexual abuse during her childhood. Her offences put her into a prison system that was ill-equipped to deal with the devastating long-term effects of the treatment she received as a child. Her harrowing story amounts to a scathing indictment of the way Canadian society deals with female criminals. Excerpts:

Copyright © 1991 McClelland & Stewart Inc.

THE SYSTEM AND SOCIETY FAILED MARLENE MOORE, WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE IN THE PRISON FOR WOMEN

Around four in the afternoon on Friday, Dec. 2, 1988, senior prison administrator Therese Decaire escorted Marlene Moore on the short walk from the segregation unit at Kingston's Prison for Women to the institution’s infirmary. They stopped several times along the way so the frail prisoner could catch her breath. Marlene, only 31, moved at the stooped, shuffling pace of an old woman.

Against her short, copper-blond hair, Marlene’s pale skin was nearly translucent. Her face, drawn and sunken under high cheekbones, was haunted with fear. Eyes that once sparkled with mischief now flashed with pain. A grisly gridwork of scars covered her upper and lower arms, upper thighs, chest and stomach.

Since arriving at the federal women’s prison eight months earlier, Prisoner No. 739186A had been a frequent patient at the second-floor infirmary. Her body was ravaged by self-mutilation, because she had frequently slashed herself with glass, pieces of plastic or any other sharp object she could obtain, and because of the intense pain of a chronic bladder disorder. Since April, she had been admitted to the hospital for days or weeks at a stretch, sometimes at her own request and sometimes on orders from medical personnel.

At 3 p.m. the next day, nurse Marsha Brown reported for her eighthour shift. Scanning the shift-changeover report, Brown read nothing to suggest that the evening ahead would be anything but routine. The parttime nurse had come to know Marlene well over the summer. On several occasions, Brown had tended to Marlene’s self-inflicted injuries.

About 15 minutes after arriving at her post that afternoon, Brown heard pounding on the curtained glass wall that separated the nurses’ quarters from the hospital ward. It was inmate Brenda Blondell, distraught because Marlene was in trouble once again, with severe pain.

Brown found Marlene curled tightly in a ball in the middle of her narrow bed, rocking back and forth. Marlene managed to tell the nurse that she had stabbing pains in her pubic area. And she said: “If it doesn’t go away, I’ll have to cut it out, or slash it out, or hang myself.” Brown gave Marlene two Tylenol tablets, one with codeine and one extra-strength.

A few minutes before 5 p.m., Brown left the locked hospital ward unattended and set out to dispense medication to prisoners in the segregation wing. At the same time, Blondell prepared to take a shower in the inmate bathroom two doors down the hall. Before leaving, she removed some plastic knives left from dinner and made her roommate promise not to harm herself.

Brown was on her way back to the prison hospital after only 15 minutes. Just outside the door to the hospital, she heard banging sounds and Blondell’s urgent screams. The prisoner, wearing a soaked flannel nightgown, gestured frantically towards Marlene’s bed. The nurse peered past Blondell into the room. She saw Marlene sprawled across her bed, her head and shoulders hanging only a few inches from the floor, with a ripped sheet fashioned in a noose around her neck. At Kingston General Hospital, at 5:43 p.m., a doctor pronounced Marlene Moore dead.

Marlene Moore was bom in Toronto on Oct. 29,1957, the 10th child of Edith Elizabeth and John (Jack) Curry Moore. She was just six months old when her parents moved their large family to the small rural community of Lake Wilcox, about 30 km north of the city. In the spring of 1958, the Moores purchased a three-bedroom bungalow fronting on what was then called Elgin Grove Avenue (later renamed North Lake Road). It was not long before they added three more children to their new home, and they all had to eat in shifts and sleep four or five to a room. At night, Marlene would rock herself to sleep, a childhood habit she never broke—her way, perhaps, of establishing an internal rhythm amidst the chaos.

Marlene was a pretty child with hazel-green eyes, a sideways grin and straight blond hair that fell in wild tangles down her back—the source of the nickname “Shaggie” that she carried through adulthood. Her fineboned features gave her a delicate beauty. She was also, brother Curry Moore says, a live wire—“electric,” and always eager to command attention.

With few exceptions, throughout her adult life Marlene remained resolutely silent about her early years. But later, she did reveal glimpses of her childhood. It became clear that Jack Moore, a burly man almost six feet tall, ruled over his children with an iron fist. Incensed by Marlene’s chronic bed-wetting, her father frequently beat her with the buckle end of his belt, raising welts on her face, legs, back and arms. “Nothing hurt worse than those beatings,” she once said. Jack Moore’s disciplinary methods were, at times, more akin to terrorism. He once held Marlene by her feet out of a second-storey window, swinging and banging her body against the house.

Moore at age 13 (opposite): authority figures who dealt with the girl were more concerned with controlling her violent behavior than exploring the reasons for it

The trauma that Marlene experienced as a child went beyond physical and emotional abuse. She also lived in a private hell of sexual abuse. In a confidential psychiatric report presented to prison officials in December, 1982, Dr. Philip Haden cited evidence of “sibling incest that was extremely distressing.”

As a child, though, Marlene kept silent about her dark secret. The trauma of being sexually abused came out not in words but in seething anger and self-hatred, causing considerable trouble, especially at school. Barry Wadman, the principal of King City Public School until 1973, organized numerous meetings with Marlene’s teachers to explore ways of dealing with her. But school officials quickly wrote Marlene off as a bad seed. As a child, she encountered no one willing or able to investigate the reason for her troubled behavior. The response of the school attendance counsellor and other education officials set a pattern that would be repeated throughout her life: authority figures around her seemed concerned more about controlling her disruptive, rebellious behavior than about exploring the reasons for her anger.

One day, when Edith Moore called Carol Cameron, an attendance counsellor for the York Region Board of Education, to North Lake Road to deal with her daughter, Marlene lashed out physically at the truant officer. “She wasn’t prepared to let anyone help,” Cameron recalled. “She was a very angry young lady.”

For Cameron, that assault was the final straw. She charged Marlene under the old Juvenile Delinquents Act as a child in need of care and protection. Before the 19701971 school year ended, a weary and defeated Edith Moore stood in the York Region juvenile and family court in Newmarket, Ont., and surrendered her 13-year-old daughter into the care of the province’s juvenile corrections system.

Despite her slight build, Marlene earned a reputation for toughness. Grandview officials responded to her misbehavior by shutting her up in a locked room, where she would rock herself for hours on a bed bolted to the floor. Sometimes, she would sit balancing on a wooden chair’s back legs and bang it monotonously against the wall. A decade later, clinical psychologist Graham Turrall testified in adult court that “places like Churchill House precipitated slashings” and fostered an environment “certainly not conducive to any kind of growth.” The Toronto psychologist once publicly denounced the maximum-security unit as “the most deplorable, depressing place” he had ever seen.

A family court judge ordered Moore to be placed in Grandview School for Girls in Cambridge, Ont. For months at a time, Moore was confined to Churchill House, a residence used for the most severe cases. It was then that Moore, like many of the other residents, began to engage in “carving” or “slashing”—a ritual in which the girls used sharpedged object to mutilate themselves. Psychologists speculate that such mutilation may relieve psychic pain.

Residents of that time say that Marlene and others spent days or weeks alone in locked rooms. Frustration, anger and loneliness found expression in self-injury, from swallowing pins to cutting or biting their skin until the blood ran. For the most part, says Corry, a friend of Marlene’s at Grandview, the practice of self-mutilation—what the girls themselves called “carving”—was a private matter. “Nobody teaches you how to carve,” said Corry. “For some reason, you just do it.”

On March 6, 1975, after she had been released from Grandview, Moore claimed to have been raped by a man who picked her up while she was hitchhiking. A district court judge found the man guilty, but the conviction was later overturned. Moore’s lawyer at the time, Alan Cooper, said: “I think she became completely disillusioned with life. ” In mid-August, 1976, Moore was arrested on counts of causing a disturbance, breach of probation and assaulting a police officer. A Simcoe County judge sentenced Moore, then 18, to one year at the Vanier Centre for Women in Brampton, Ont. In May, 1977, prisoners at Vanier launched a protest against changes in the prison rules. At one point, Moore and another prisoner seized a staff member and held her hostage for several hours. As a result, Moore was sent to the Prison for Women.

Marlene Moore, at age 19, was now in federal custody. “Home” was a six-by-ninefoot cell at Kingston’s Prison for Women. For female offenders, the limestone fortress known simply as P4W is the end of the line.

When Marlene arrived at P4W, the cells had no hot water. By day, the clang and hum of electronically operated metal doors was constant. At night, wind rattled through doors and windows. Even more alarming for the prisoners were the chilling sounds that travelled through the antiquated vents: the screams of women housed in the prison’s segregation unit.

On Dec. 1, 1979, Moore was released from prison on mandatory supervision. Within a month, she broke into an apartment in Toronto and stole 12 bottles of beer. Later, during a court appearance, she punched a female guard on the cheek, and the judge sent her back to P4 W. Released on Oct. 25,1981, Moore spent the next seven years in and out of halfway houses and detention and rehabilitation centres. On March 30, 1988, Toronto police arrested Moore and charged her with three counts of armed robbery. Sentenced to five years, on April 13 Moore made her final trip to the Prison for Women.

It was clear from the beginning that Marlene was in physical and emotional distress. On her first day back, she dropped by the inmate committee office and spoke briefly with Gayle Horii, the committee chairman. “She was very weak and nearly incoherent,” Horii recorded in her diary. Horii wrote that Marlene was bumping into furniture and that she said she needed glasses. The next day, Marlene caused a scene by butting her cigarette into another prisoner’s salad dish, a dish made of the same black plastic as the dining-room ashtrays. Guards moved in to break up an angry shoving match between Marlene and the woman whose meal she had sullied. In less than 24 hours, the destructive misconduct and punishment that had marked Marlene’s earlier imprisonment at Kingston resumed. Both women were temporarily locked up in segregation.

A few days later, the prisoners’ committee filed an official complaint about excessive use of segregation by the prison administration. “The tension at P4W is high,” inmate Horii wrote. Horii was worried that other inmates, including Marlene, would be unable to withstand the pressure and would also begin slashing. “Women cannot shut out the pain of their neighbors, and each incident threatens to become a contagious epidemic,” she wrote. Her report also contained a description of the unit: “Segregation at P4W still has no hot water, cells have no flooring, only concrete, toilets are rusted out and putrid, bars are painted black in keeping with the punishment theme. The psychological damage done to the women in segregation is beyond the punishment of the prison sentence, the separation from one’s family. It is straight torture for any human person to be subject to cages such as these.”

While the administration studied options designed to stem the flow of blood behind the limestone walls, the turmoil at the prison intensified Marlene’s anger and pain. Her frustration was aggravated by her physical condition. She experienced chronic pain from her bladder problems and was humiliated because of her incontinence, which forced her to relieve herself through a catheter.

Marlene’s pain spilled out in torrents of verbal abuse of the staff. In early October, 1988, she was sentenced to 40 days in segregation after a confrontation with a nurse. She spent her 31st birthday, Oct. 29, in segregation.

Two weeks later, around noon on Nov. 10, Marlene tied a rope around her neck and tried to hang herself in her cell. Linda Cowan, the guard on duty, was alerted by an inmate that something was wrong with Marlene, who was locked in one of four camera-monitored cells on the lower level. When she saw Marlene hanging in the cell, Cowan ran to the guard station, hit an emergency button and grabbed some scissors. She then saw, on camera, Marlene lift herself out of the noose, retreat to her bed and begin rocking violently, alone in her misery.

By then, Marlene was overwhelmed by rage and despair. Weak and plagued with crippling pain, desperately lonely for her Toronto friends 250 km away, she had no one to comfort her, no one to listen to her side of the story. Her feelings of powerlessness and hostility towards her keepers escalated day by day, and she began to use her slashing both as a means of attracting attention and as a psychological weapon against her captors.

On the evening of Nov. 25, hysteria swept through the segregation unit as a phalanx of guards struggled to cut down Brenda Blondell, who had hanged herself in her cell on the upper tier. The unconscious prisoner was rushed by ambulance to Kingston General Hospital, where she remained in serious condition for several days before being moved to the prison hospital. Before dawn, there would be two more attempted suicides in the unit.

Marlene responded to the chaotic scene in the only way she knew. She draped a blanket over the bars of her cell and began to slash, ignoring the screams of other prisoners begging her to stop. She methodically squeezed her blood into a paper cup and flung the contents onto the concrete floor outside her cell. Later, prison guard Mary Morissette escorted Marlene to the institution hospital for medical treatment. A few hours later, guards returned Marlene to segregation.

During the next week, the final days of Marlene’s life, the inmate committee lobbied the administration for the release of the women in segregation.

On Dec. 2, Marlene asked the assistant warden of security, Therese Decaire, to check on the status of seven new disciplinary charges against inmates related to spitting and throwing body fluids at the prison staff. Because of those charges, Marlene had been sentenced to another 45 days of punitive segregation. As a matter of prison policy, a sentence of more than 30 days requires the approval of the region’s deputy commissioner. Decaire found that the deputy commissioner had recommended that the time Marlene had already spent in segregation be counted against her new sentence. He also directed that she be allowed to spend the 15 days still outstanding in the prison hospital. When Decaire gave her the news, Marlene immediately stated that she wanted to go to the hospital, and Decaire took her there later that afternoon. “She was moving very slowly,” Decaire says. “She was very thin and very pale. By the time we got to the hospital, she was totally exhausted.” The next day, Marlene was dead.

In January, 1989, warden Mary Cassidy turned to Jan Heney, whose success in treating women who mutilate themselves outside of prison had come to the attention of Correctional Service officials. Marlene’s death a month earlier was a catalyst for the investigation that followed. Heney was asked to investigate the feasibility of introducing her treatment methods inside the penitentiary. She spent many hours interviewing guards, administrative staff and prisoners, searching for answers to why women slash in prison and how they could be helped.

In early 1990, a year and one month after Marlene’s death, Heney presented Cassidy with a set of bold recommendations aimed at reducing and treating self-injury at the women’s prison. Her 42-page report took pains not to aim any direct criticism at prison guards or administrators. But Heney’s general assessment was blunt: long-standing prison practices and policies had fostered the kind of tension and desperation that provoked self-mutilation; more than that, the institution’s manner of responding to women who slash was likely to escalate rather than reduce the rate of self-mutilation and suicide among prisoners.

Heney, calling for sweeping changes, said that selfinjurious behavior should be seen as a mental-health issue rather than a security matter, She said that the prison must move quickly to develop new ways of responding to emotional pain caused by childhood physical and sexual abuse. She recommended an immediate end to the use of segregation for women who slash, saying that isolation increases rather than decreases suicidal tendencies. It was an unequivocal message that underscored how devastating the prison’s policy of segregating women had been for Marlene and others like her.

Within two months of the release of Heney’s report, the Correctional Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies held a news conference to trumpet their own long-awaited taskforce report. The collaborative effort, which got under way in March, 1989, had been fraught with tension. The Elizabeth Fry Societies and most of the other non-Correctional Service personnel involved in the task force consider themselves prison abolitionists. Said Fry Societies executive director Bonnie Diamond: “It really tried our souls to be designing a prison system when we don’t believe women should be in prison.”

The radical vision contained in the 156-page document, Creating Choices-. The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, represented a breakthrough for the treatment of female offenders, recognizing the importance of restoring the women’s control over their lives and offering them opportunities to heal from devastating childhood abuse. The recommendations called for the penitentiary for women to be closed by 1994 and replaced by five regional “cottage-like” facilities, with room for up to 10 women in each. The report recommended the establishment of a native “healing lodge” in one of the Prairie provinces, where aboriginal women prisoners could serve their time without being cut off from native customs and elders. It said that there should be an increase in halfway houses and addiction treatment centres across Canada to help women move back into the community as quickly as possible.

One highly controversial recommendation highlighted the issue of prison mothers. Since 1985, four studies have been commissioned by the Canadian government to examine the impact of separation on women and their families, the social costs of incarcerating mothers and the possibility of institutional nurseries. But no action had ever been taken to address the critical problems. The report stressed that new facilities for women offenders must include “live-in programs” for children.

The task-force recommendations followed a long chorus of voices condemning the Kingston prison. In 1938, just four years after the prison opened, the Archambeault committee investigating the penal system had recommended that the women’s prison be shut down. Since 1968, no fewer than 13 government studies and nongovernment reports have reaffirmed that P4W should be closed and that decentralized facilities should be established closer to women’s homes. In 1978, Solicitor General Jean-Jacques Blais announced that the prison would be closed within a year. Instead, a new 18-foot-high concrete wall was erected around the prison during the early 1980s, at a cost of $1.4 million. A later 1985 target date announced by the federal government for dispersing the women also passed without any action being taken.

Finally, in September, 1990, federal Solicitor General Pierre Cadieux announced that the Prison for Women would be closed in four years and replaced by five regional centres to enable offenders to live closer to their families and friends. He said that the initiative would cost $50 million. The new centres, one of them a healing lodge for aboriginal women, would stress education and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Cadieux said: “We recognize that many of the women sentenced to our care have needs similar to those of disadvantaged women in the larger community. Most of them have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Many have related substance-abuse problems, low self-esteem and heavy responsibility for parenting children on their own.”

The Correctional Service has taken some emergency measures to try to make conditions more tolerable as long as the Kingston prison remains open. The women’s prison has hired a second full-time psychologist and renewed a sexual-abuse education program for inmates and staff. Prison authorities have recruited part time an aboriginal elder as a spiritual resource for the native population, a full-time native counsellor and an instructor for native studies. It has started to expand the prison’s program for drug and alcohol abuse, including one-on-one counselling, education programs and a therapeutic unit for substance abuse.

The Correctional Service of Canada took another modest step in March, 1990, when it opened a minimum-security institution for women in Kingston—the first of its kind in Canada. The renovated limestone house, without bars on the windows or doors, can accommodate 11 women. Cadieux said that the new facility was designed to offer inmates easier access to community programs and counselling in substance abuse, sexual abuse and psychiatric problems.

Ultimately, significant reform depends on widespread public understanding. Can society accept that female offenders, with few exceptions, are not dangerous? Is society ready to transcend its desire to punish and instead provide opportunities for healing and rehabilitation? Are we ready to acknowledge just how much imprisoned women have suffered—and continue to suffer—because of their small numbers?

A few weeks after Marlene Moore’s death, Gayle Horii and other women in P4W expressed their grief in writing: “Marlene had a smile that would light up the sky, a heart with lots of love and a mind with much intelligence. The system and society failed her terribly. We never thought of her as ‘the most dangerous woman in Canada.’ We always thought of her as a child never given a fair chance in life.”