by Mavis Gallant
Standard Staff Writer
Last year the Toronto newspapers, ever on the bit, were able to pick up several items from their favourite news source and whipping boy, the Arther Mercer Reformatory for Females.
The Mercer, an ugly building surrounded by factories in east-end Toronto houses 153 women from all parts of Ontario, their crimes ranging all the way from prostitution to theft of $12.
The comings and goings of these women, their state of mind, and degree of discipline, appears to be a continual source of anxiety to local editors, most of who have never been inside the front door. Nevertheless their zeal is undimmed, probably because few ideas are as fascinating to the public as women in jail.
The Mercer has been fodder for stories and editorials. It has been covered from the “inside” and (most frequently) from without. Depending on where you read it, the Mercer is a honeycomb of rats and dungeons, or it is run with all the corrective atmosphere of a country club. Either way, it makes it possible to head editorials with “What is Going On At The Mercer?,” and on a dull day you can always interview a social worker and ask her what she thinks of the Mercer.
Sometimes the news is ready made, which is even better. Last summer, for instance, the girls livened the seasonal slump by staging a riot. It took place in June, but it was September before the last lingering phrases were reluctantly dropped form the press. In a way you can see why. As a riot, it was lulu, and held the front pages for several editions with such verbs as bit, scratched, gouged screamed, cursed, smashed and kicked. “Howling inmates” was easily the phrase of the day.
Only about 100 women were involved, but reinforcements for the local police were rushed in from the suburbs only to be rewarded by having the girls turn a hose on them. Never, the cops said, had they heard such language. It was sometime before the girls were locked up again and the tear gas fumes cleared away. They counted up the damage.
The police force had suffered, collectively, a fractured wrist, a gash over the eye requiring six stitches, and several bruises as a result of having been struck with baseball bats and chair legs. Some of the provincial police were severely bitten, and a matron was kicked in the chest
The Mercer pulled through with broken dishes, windows, and furniture, though there was further damage during the next few days when the girls, instead of resting in their cells, spent the hours picking bricks out of the wall with spoons and hurling them through the bars at their guards. Leaders of the riot were strapped, setting off a great press controversy which was still unresolved months later.
The autumn picture was brightened by a pair of enterprising inmates who vaulted the back fence when they were supposed to be putting out the garbage, and got all the way to Hamilton. Interest in the Mercer, which had never really flagged, picked up. Reports dating back seven years were unearthed. Welfare officials were questioned. Miss Agnes MacPhail made a statement. Ancient alcoholics emerging from the Mercer for the umpteenth time were interviewed and their colourful stories of beating and starvation made good reading.
To the Evening Telegram, it was all very simple.“The high-strung inmates of Mercer Reformatory are a constant subject of debate.” Inside the mercer, they said, “discipline has suffered from an attempt to create the inmates as normal adults.” A story from Kipling was used to amplify this point.
But according to the Toronto Star, the Mercer was a place “ long condemned for its physical unfitness and policies” where “girls are allowed to be whipped, punished by solitary confinement on bread and water, where tear gas is employed at the will of authorities and where there is no educative employment for inmates.”
And the Globe and Mail blamed the low staff salaries which failed to attract “the right types of person” and resulted in “erratic and unjust” policies.
Meanwhile the provincial prison authorities fumed in silence, wondering why no one mentioned the fact that the Ontario penal system, with all its faults, is probably the most progressive in Canada. They looked in vain for a mention of the newly-established school at Mercer, where some inmates are learning to spell and count, and others are studying for senior matriculation exams.
None of the stories spoke of the staff psychologist, the well-equipped gymnasium, the library, the record collection, or the beauty parlour visited by a cosmetician three times a week. They heard the howls about the Mercer’s hideous and outdated building, but no one offered to build anything new.
They agreed that the idea of young girls in prison was not pleasant, and they were open to suggestion. But there were few suggestions, either as to how they could be kept out of trouble in the first place, or how they could be prevented from returning after the first sentence.
Maybe there was something wrong with a prison which didn’t entirely “reform” its inmates, but then there was also something wrong with employers who wouldn’t give them jobs when they got out. And they took some comfort from the fact that compared to most Canadian jails, the Mercer looks like a boarding school.
Some of the girls at Mercer consider themselves well off. The food is good, as institutional food goes, and it is plentiful. The place is clean, it is not uncomfortable, and everything which could possibly be done to make an ugly building attractive has been attempted.
At this very moment there are two young girls at Mercer who don’t want to leave. One, an 18-year-old, has deferred parole because she wants to continue studying and obtain her senior matriculation certificate. She has a few months to go, and after that she wants to become a nurse. Government officials are doing everything to help her. Their big problem is finding a hospital which will accept her.
The other girl is the mother of an illegitimate baby. Her family won’t take the baby, and she won’t leave without it.
However, with all its amenities, the Mercer is still a jail, with a jail atmosphere. The girls sleep in cells, except for a handpick few in dormitories. The cells are painted powder blue, but they still have bars and are locked from 9 pm to 6:40 am.
A stranger visiting the Mercer would be, probably, most impressed by the locks and the silence. Viewed as a group, the girls are pale-faced and sullen. They work without a word, through their recreation periods are raucous. They stand silently when you come into a room and state when they think you aren’t looking.
They drift down the gloomy corridors like small flocks of sheep, herd along by a matron. The room they leave is locked behind them and they are locked into the room they enter.
It is only when they are spoken to that they break down as human types, and even then the types are deceptive. A pretty adolescent with innocent eyes and a milk-like skin was an inmate in a brothel. A timid young woman looks as if she wouldn’t hurt a fly is there for maltreating a small child.
Twenty-three different types of offence have brought them there, but no one can be kept more than two years. Several nationalities and religions are represented, and there is a wide spread in age. Ten of the girls are under 16, and 62 are under 20. The oldest inmate is in her sixties. Two-thirds are first offenders, though many are parole violators and 27 of them were transferred from training schools as “incorrigible.”
Girls in this last category are cynical of Ontario’s much publicized training school system. Said one hostile little red head: “Half the school is here with me now. We had our whole softball team, all but the pitcher, and she came in this morning.”
“Incorrigibles” form the largest group at the Mercer. They are girls who are repeated juvenile offenders, and who do not respond to the training school system which bars corporal punishment. Sometimes it is difficult to say if the fault is a character weakness or simply an unbreakable will.
The Mercer houses 25 thieves, 18 drug addicts (they get no drugs at Mercer), 15 classified under the embracing term “vagrant” and eight forgers. Two girls are labelled “prostitute,” another “inmate of house of ill-fame” and one “keeper of house of ill-fame.”
Keeping first offenders away from old-timers is a major problem. The building is nearly 70 years old, and badly planned. Drug addicts are kept together, and the “stripes” (first offenders) separated as much as possible from the “blues” (repeaters). The terms are Mercer jargon, deriving from uniform inmates wore at one time. In fact, Mercer gossip has it that in the gold old days keepers of brothels had a special uniform to distinguish them from less exotic prisoners.
Nowadays the girls wear light green dresses, which make them look somewhat like waitresses. Makeup is permitted, and many of the girls are extremely attractive. Some, of course, are hopelessly sloppy and no amount of compulsory bathing can change the habits of years.
But most of the young girls develop a meticulous cleanliness while in prison, almost to the point of neurosis. In fact, if 153 women can be said to have anything in common, apart from having broken a law, the Mercer girls have it in various forms of instability.
Their teachers refer to them as “high strung” and temperamental. If they are spoken to quietly, they respond. But if the matrons shout at them, as many of them do, they yell right back. They are quick to quarrel with each other, and very impatient. Nail biting and other nervous habits are common.
The instability which probably first led them into trouble is intensified by the unnatural life of a prison, and the results show in outbreaks like last summer’s riot.
For adolescents, who are still in a period of growth, the routine seems rather harsh. The girls get up a 6 am and are “unlocked” for chapel and breakfast. At 8 o’clock they are busily and silently at work, either in the laundry, kitchen or factory, which is actually a large sewing room where the girls operate power machines.
Some of them paint walls, others scrub and was the already spotless floors. With only one break for smoking, they until 12, then go back at one until 5 o’clock, when they stop for supper.
School is the only diversion, but daytime classes take only three hours a week. Evenings, they have a wider choice of activity, including handicrafts, PT, and extra academic classes. But this program started a little more than a year ago. Up to that time, Mercer inmates worked eight hours without a break. However, the girls do not appear unhealthy, perhaps because they do eat well.
One of the most curious features of the Mercer is the nursery. Last year 14 babies were born to inmates, 11 of them illegitimate. Mothers go to a hospital in Toronto for the birth of the child, then bring it back if they decide to keep it. Those whose families will take the child are considered lucky.
In fact, the most vicious thing about these girls often not a trait of their own, but of their families. About 90 per cent of these young offenders come from broken homes, or from homes where there is drinking, quarrelling, or, frequently, unreasonable severity.
Neglected, abandoned, often abused, their characters were formed long before they reached the Mercer with its indelible stamp of prison. Some of the girls are never visited. Others, paroled home, are constantly reminded that they were lawbreakers.
Not all, of course, are good mental material. About half could probably be classified above dull normal. But a few have good IQ’s, which show in their school work and in the books they choose from the library.
Their misfortune is the warp in character which pushed them off the track, and the families who worked against them instead of with them. The stories these girls tell are unconscious indictments of their parents, rather than themselves, regardless of the offence.
That this is not always understood, even by people working with prisoners, is shown by this comment from a visiting social workers: “ If they were to learn self-respect and self-control in their younger days and worship God at home as well as in church they would not be in trouble today.”
“I wish she could see some of the homes” was the underplayed comment from the Mercer.
And their parents’ indication of their own failure is shown by the number of them who telephone John Milne, supervisor at the Mercer and comment cheerfully: “Well, at least we know where she is tonight!”
–Montreal Standard, February 26 1949.
Image: Mercer Reformatory (Toronto, Canada). Library and Archives Canada.