Van Wagner discusses CrimSL Library's unique holdings of 'The Quill' at Congress 2023

June 2, 2023 by Patricia Doherty

Danielle Van Wagner, Librarian at the University of Toronto Criminology Library, moderated a session and gave a scholarly presentation entitled "The Quill and 'The Wheel of Fire': First-Hand Accounts of Experimentation on Mentally Ill Prisoners in Ontario," at the Bibliographical Society of Canada (BSC) Annual Conference 2023. 

The BSC conference took place May 29-30, 2023, on the theme "Book: Re-imagined and Re-born" and was held at York University as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Abstract: The Quill and 'The Wheel of Fire': First-Hand Accounts of Experimentation on Mentally Ill Prisoners in Ontario

The Quill (1960-1969), a periodical written, and printed by the patient-inmates at the Oak Ridge Psychiatric Unit in Penetanguishene, is a unique work within the wider body of publications produced in prisons, frequently termed the penal press. Oak Ridge was the only maximum-security psychiatric unit in Ontario and it housed mentally ill prisoners transferred from other institutions, and those deemed unfit to stand trial and declared not criminally responsible. This publication was produced in print runs of three hundred with an extremely limited external subscriber base. It now provides a relevant account of mental illness, and its intersections with psychiatry and the criminal justice system.  

Five recently discovered issues (1965-1969) at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology Library are the only known holdings of The Quill. These holdings recount the degrading experimental care, dubbed ‘the Wheel of Fire,’ that was conducted at Oak Ridge under the supervision of Dr. Elliott Barker. Barker’s Social Therapy Unit (1966-1983) utilized solitary confinement, group confinement in close quarters, sensory deprivation, illegal drug regimens, physical force, and constraint. The Quill provides a humanizing counter narrative to these experiments from the patients’ perspective.

This presentation will examine The Quill as a vehicle for magnifying the marginalized voices of those deemed both mentally ill and criminal. Read in context, alongside Dr. Barker’s academic articles and presentations on the experiments, The Quill brings to light the human cost of forced experimentation and provides a new and timely area of focus to the study of the penal press.

About Danielle Van Wagner

Danielle Van Wagner holds an MI in Archives and Records Management from the University of Toronto (2015) and an MA in Art and Visual Culture from the University of Guelph (2011). She chairs the Awards Committee and is a Councilor at the Bibliographical Society of Canada.

About the Bibliographical Society of Canada

The Bibliographical Society of Canada/La Société bibliographique du Canada is a bilingual (English/French) organization that has as its goal the scholarly study of the history, description, and transmission of texts in all media and formats, with a primary emphasis on Canada.