Peoples History Podcast
Ep #4. Robert Gentles, Prison Brutality, and the Prison Violence Project

Welcome listeners, you are tuned in to the People’s History Project podcast, run by OPIRG Kingston – a student run group with a focus on research, education and direct action on intersectional matters of social and environmental justice.

Before we begin, we would like to acknowledge that this podcast is being recorded at CFRC, at Queen’s University, situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenoshone territory. It is our collective responsibility to address the systemic oppression that Indigenous people face, and contribute to meaningful reconciliation and direct action, in support of Indigenous autonomy and rights.

The People’s History Podcast aims to recognize and preserve the important roles that Kingstonians and Queen’s students have played in many social movements throughout the years. The stories of people who participated in struggles for social and environmental justice – queer, Indigenous, Black, anti-racist, feminist, among many others – often go untold in “official” histories. The PHP seeks to engage with these stories by making accessible the rich history of social movements and resistance in Kingston.
So if you’ve ever been curious about how Kingston as we know it came to be, you are listening to the right podcast.

Today we are talking about the violent and racist history of Kingston prison institutions, through the lens of one activist at the center of it, Robert Tex Gentles.
Important side note: August 10th was International Prisoners’ Justice Day, to raise awareness and to organize against inhumane conditions in prison. The first Prisoners’ Justice Day was held at the Millhaven Institution on August 10, 1975, on the first anniversary of Edward Nolan’s death, another prisoner who was subject to horrendous treatment.
This is relevant because Tex Gentles was involved in creating the Prison Violence Project, an organization dedicated to minimizing violence in prisons, protecting inmates and preventing further cycles of violence once they are released. 

The Correctional Service of Canada was at odds with the Prison Violence Project, as it exposed unchecked, structural violence in the prison system that allowed for the abuse of inmates. 

the unaddressed trauma of facing such violence would trickle down and cause further problems once prisoners were released. For Robert’s work with the PVP, he was disliked and considered an upstart, making him a target for the prison guards’ violent frustrations. 
The death of Robert ‘Tex’ Gentles would have been covered up as just another accidental or natural prison death, were it not for the tireless effort of his mother Carmeta Gentles, and the family, friends and community members who supported her. Tex died on October 24th, 1993, when six prison guards entered his cell, beat him and brought him out of the cell unconscious and with life-threatening injuries. This altercation started when he was ordered to turn down his radio, in response Tex demanded to know why prisoners had not been fed in 21 hours (1).

Afterwards, when Carmeta Gentles heard that her son passed away, she did not believe that it was a ‘natural death’, as he was young and healthy, and known to be in precarious standing with the prison staff. With the help of a legal team, as well as the support of friends and family, Carmeta Gentles held a private prosecution in front of the Justice of Peace, who ruled manslaughter charges against the six prison guards. This would have been the first time in Canadian history that prison guards would be held accountable for their actions and be prosecuted for the death of an inmate. 

Throughout this time, prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary, members of the Kingston community and supporters from Hamilton, Toronto and Kingston protested the unnatural and unjust death of Tex by holding silent vigils outside the prison, marching from Union and University to the Kingston Penitentiary and supporting the Prison Violence Project. The event culminated in a vigil, with three emotional speeches, including one by Carmeta Gentles. Many supporters completely covered Kingston Penitentiary with slogans, stickers, and the names of the six guards.



Following Eddie Nalon’s death and the beginning of the international Prisoners Justice Day, not much changed in the treatment of inmates and the attitudes of prison guards, in Canada, and across borders.  During the 1980s, serious staff morale problems at Kingston Penitentiary resulted in two employees of the Ontario region deputy commissioner performing an inquiry. Through interviewing “frontline security staff, support people and administrators,” as well as reviewing “about thirty inmate grievances relating to improper staff behavior” the inquiry found that certain guards had “gained illegitimate power as a result of the constantly changing leadership and lack of consistency at the top.”  However, at the insistence of the guards’ union, the inquirers were prevented from naming the offending guards, and it was not revealed until nine years later during the investigation following the murder of Mr. Robert ‘Tex’ Gentles.

Tex, a prisoner of Jamaican descent in Kingston Penitentiary, was involved in founding the Prison Violence Project, a prisoner-based, human rights research body that worked towards eliminating the violence that occurs in prisons. The PVP, as well as other investigations and organizations, had conducted research that revealed the unusually cruel nature of violence in prisons. In particular, this project’s research found that “most of the perpetrators were not originally violent offenders, but had somehow become violent during their sentence.”  The hope of the group was that by eliminating the violence that occurs within prisons, the effect would be “a reduction of violence by ex-prisoners upon release.” They worked hard to research and write more about violence in prisons before eventually being disbanded by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) a few months after a vigil held in Robert’s memory two years after his murder occurred.


On October 24th, 1993, at around 1:00PM, hungry inmates complained that they had not been fed in approximately 21 hours. Hungry and frustrated at the fact that they had not been fed due to a lock up, the inmates began protesting and questioning the guard staff.  One eyewitness account states that two prison guards were drawn to Tex’ cell when a ball of fire, which other hungry inmates had thrown, flew close by.  Other accounts argue that the guards were drawn to his cell because Tex, along with other inmates, were playing their radios loud in protest of the fact that they had not been fed.  Most accounts agree that when the guards approached Tex’ cell, he asked the guards why the inmates had not been fed in such a long time. The two prison guards, Mr. S. Wiley and Mr. B. Aitchison, had a history of brutality; Mr. Wiley was well known for “his provocations, threats, and intimidation against outspoken prisoners.” The two prison guards entered Tex’s cell, along with four other prison guards that had been called in as members of an extraction team.  When the guards pulled Tex out of his cell, he was unconscious. Many infuriated inmates who feared for their friend’s life demonstrated their disapproval, and the lock up happening at Kingston Penitentiary was prolonged. Soon after, a staff nurse at the Kingston Penitentiary reported that Tex showed no vital signs, and he was pronounced dead at the emergency ward of Kingston’s downtown hospital.

The autopsy revealed that Tex had died as a result of acute pulmonary congestion, although he also experienced “congestion of the kidneys, spleen, neck bruising, a swollen lower lip and internal mouth abrasions, eye hemorrhaging and bruising to neck.”  Other reports cite that the prison guard brutality committed against Tex also included asphyxiation, as well as over four times the amount of Mace authorized by the correctional service of canada.  The prison guards as well as the institution refused to give statements to the Kingston Police Departments.


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As a racialized inmate, Tex was undoubtedly subjected to violence beyond the typical, normalized violence that occurs in prisons. Ms. Carmeta Gentles argues that her son was specifically targeted for violence due to his race. She recalls that while listening to some of the prisoners’ testimonies, she learnt that the day before the murder of her son:

“[The prison guards] tried to say how [Mr. Robert Gentles] was disruptive. But other prisoners said they were shocked when the guards went in front of my son’s cell…The night he was killed, the hallway was noisy…Robert did not start the fight, he was nowhere near it. But the guards picked on him to turn his radio down.” 


In addition, eyewitness accounts, such as those of Joe Prates, an inmate of Brazilian descent, suggest that racialized violence existed in Kingston Penitentiary. Prates recalls a prison guard, stating to him: 

“Get up you piece of shit! So you think you’re going to rat on us?… Are you listening to me? No one is going to miss you, you’re just another (n-word with hard er), and you know what we do to (n word’s) here? You forgot (what happened to) Tex.” 

This encounter demonstrates the evident lack of remorse for their actions, but also the inferior, demeaning, racist approach that the prison guards took with racialized inmates. 


Black and Indigenous inmates are not only over-represented in prisons, but are also more likely to do time in maximum security and solitary confinement, more likely to experience physical violence by prison guards, are less likely to be released on parole, and are less likely to obtain jobs in prison. As of 2013, 9.5% of federal inmates were black, whereas black people only account for 3% of the Canadian population.

Howard Sapers, an ombudsman (which is an official appointed by the government to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them, usually through recommendations or mediation. Ombudsmen sometimes also aim to identify systemic issues leading to poor service or breaches of people’s rights.)
Sapers set forward a report about black inmates in federal prisons, stated that one hypothesis for increased violence towards radicalized inmates is that, “If you suspect that an identifiable group is more involved in gang activity, and if your decisions result in a group being held more often in segregation – that group is going to have less opportunity to participate in programs and employment.”  Furthermore, End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), a prison abolitionist group based in Kingston, Ontario, members Eric and Sarah commented on the ways in which prisons function as “a tool and institution of Canadian colonialism.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence from eyewitnesses and the autopsy demonstrating that tremendous racism, violence and murder that resulted in the death of Tex, due to the whitewashing of the case, the Kingston Police Department investigation determined that no charges would be laid. Although the Crown attorney was interested and insisted on pressing charges, the Attorney General Marton Boyd refused to consider changes on multiple occasions. Ms. Carmeta Gentles worked tirelessly, along with family and friends and the legal team of Julian Falconer and his associates to bring justice for Tex as well as to prevent this from occurring to other inmates. Without the hard work of these individuals, the murder of Tex would have been covered up as another accidental or natural prison death.  


In August and September of 1994, Carmeta Gentles, represented by Julian Falconer, held a private prosecution before the Justice of Peace Jolicoeur.  The Justice of Peace later ruled manslaughter charges against the six guards, although charges were later dropped against four of the guards. Mr. S. Wiley and Mr. B. Aitchison were to be taken to trial, each with charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence resulting in the death of Tex. As stated earlier, this would mark the historic first time in Canadian history that prison guards would be held accountable for their actions and be prosecuted for the death of an inmate.

As a result of the murder of Tex, the apparent lack of concern shown by public institutions and the revolt at the violence that had been committed in Kingston Penitentiary, other inmates, members of the Kingston community, and members of other communities united to protest against prison violence. Within a year following the death of Tex, 385 of the 400 prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary at the time signed a position demanding Justice for Robert Gentles. A statement issued by members of the PVP, after a request to hold a vigil in the prison chapel was denied, stated:

“[T]he canteen and the [inmate committee of the PVP] are not working tonight in support of the one year anniversary of the Gentles case. The committee is looking for the support of the cons by not leaving the ranges, in a quiet demonstration in support of our families who will be picketing against CSC in support of the Gentles case.” 

That same year, over 100 supporters from Hamilton, Toronto and Kingston supported the event by lighting a candle and attending a silent vigil outside of the Kingston Penitentiary. A week after the vigil, all members of the PVP who remained in the Kingston Penitentiary were involuntarily transferred to other prisons throughout Canada.  


On the two year anniversary of the murder of Tex, around 100 protesters marched from the John Deutsch University Centre (JDUC) at Union and University streets to Kingston Penitentiary as well as the provincial headquarters of the CSC, “in the cold and rain,” to host another silent vigil.  Throughout the march and vigil, supporters completely covered the front of the Kingston Penitentiary with slogans, such as “Justice for Gentles” and “Jail the Killer Guards,” as well as with the names of the violent guards involved with Tex’s death. Representatives from the Black Action Defence Committee and the Prison Justice Project, as well as Carmetta Gentles, delivered emotional speeches about the situation at the vigil. Interestingly, there was little police presence at the demonstration, partially because it was Queen’s homecoming weekend, and also because police and mainstream media did not want to draw attention to the the demonstration.

A few months after the demonstration, during the winter of 1995, the CSC officially banned the PVP.  In June of the same year, Mrs. Gentles was forced to allow the Crown to take over the case due to financial reasons. The Crown subsequently dropped all charges against Mr. Wiley and Mr. Aitchison due to “lack of evidence.” 


Soon after, Julian Falcon and his associates commenced a lawsuit directed at the Correctional Service of Canada for a wrongful death on behalf of the Gentles family. The lawsuit, including a financial settlement and a written apology from CSC, was not resolved until 2003, a full decade after Tex’s murder. Ms. Gentles is the former executive of the Community Coalition Against Racism (CCAR). In an open addressed letter to the public describing the situation, the chair of CCAR states: “The story really deserves a book because it dealt with the…struggle of an heroic working woman of colour against incredible odds, against the state itself, with the help of other ordinary people and a brilliant and fearless lawyer. A book would also better explain the complex legal issues that presented themselves during the past decade of struggle than is possible in this short synopsis of the case.”

Thank you for tuning into this episode of OPIRG Kingston’s People’s History Podcast. For more information on the story, check out the transcript and citations on the OPIRG Kingston website.

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