Local history: How a Halifax woman helped reform Canadian prisons

In its day, Isabel Macneill House in Kingston, Ont. was Canada's only minimum-security prison for women. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a field where few women ventured, Isabel Macneill helped bring the justice system into the modern era

Isabel Janet Macneill’s military achievement is as impressive as her later career in the justice system. Born in Halifax in June 1908, she was quick to sign up for the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service when the Second World War broke out. She soon became commanding officer of HMCS Conestoga, a naval shore establishment in Galt, Ont. She was the first woman in the British Empire to hold such a post.

But that was just the start of her trailblazing. After the war, the Conestoga building reverted to its old use, as a training school for delinquent girls. And by 1948, Macneill was back in command, this time as superintendent. Her charges included teenage girls (although some were as young as 10) deemed “incorrigible” — runaways, beggars, and truants.

During her six years there, Macneill transformed the organization, offering training and treatment, rather than just incarceration. She hired psychologists and sympathetic house supervisors. In 1953, she was awarded the Coronation Medal for her work at the school.

Isabel Macneill in June 1943. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, Macneill went to Europe to study correctional facilities. The next year, she became superintendent of the federal prison for women in Kingston, Ont. The posting was another first for a Canadian woman. Her again, she preached her message of the justice system as an opportunity for rehabilitation.

Once again, she introduced a team approach, working with social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Her reforms included temporary absence, prerelease programs, and increasing academic and vocational training. She even exchanged drab prison uniforms for more colourful and stylish ones.

Like many reformers, she met increasing resistance, and resigned in 1966 when her bosses resisted her steady efforts to make prison more humane.

Her work on behalf of vulnerable Canadians didn’t end, though.

In 1967, she lead a study on drug addiction for the Ontario Alcohol and Drug Addiction Research Foundation, working closed with addicted people (rather a novelty in policy development in those days), creating a report that lead directly to better treatment options in Canada.

She returned to Nova Scotia later in life, passing away in 1990, largely unknown to her fellow Haligonians despite the ongoing positive effects of her work.

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