Outside of life itself, what more does a person have to lose than their freedom of movement? As long as there have been states built on the rule of law, there have been jails and jailers.
And yet, in Québec, locking people up in order to try to correct their behavior and their way of thinking is a relatively recent practice. This type of prison sentence is more contemporary, and certainly, imperfect. Let’s take a look at a brief history of a Québec prison system under pressure.
Women and Prison
In the middle of the 19th century, women weren’t imprisoned for the same reasons that men were. The social services system of the time had huge holes in it, and it was juxtaposed with a repressive political system. Women were locked up in “asylums” for their own protection. As historian Donald Fryson explains: “For many women, prison was in a very real sense a refuge where they could save their skin.”
During the decade of the 1850s, half the women behind bars were there at their own request. A homeless woman freezing to death at night would be brought to jail. “The dividing line between crime and social services was a porous one,” this historian underlines.
Indeed, a woman in prison was considered an anomaly. Originating in Italy and created by authors like Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), positivist criminology focused on the innate character of a criminal. Gaining quick influence abroad, this school of thought argued that crime is, for a woman, a betrayal of their basic nature.
Inaugurated in Montréal in 1876, Fullum prison was entirely devoted to women prisoners. An order of nuns, the Soeurs du Bon-Pasteur, ran the facility until 1960. Only 26 sisters guarded the prisoners there. The order was paid $200 a year for every inmate. Prisoners were separated by their religion and not by their crime. French Canadians had their own meal time.
The nuns focused on re-educating women prisoners. Moral reform closely allied with religious precepts was a daily preoccupation. For men, by comparison, forced labor and work gangs were at the heart of prison life.