Kingston Penitentiary, Part 1

Hello, friends. A few days ago I finally fulfilled, with thanks to my friend Michelle Gibson, a longstanding ambition to snoop around Kingston Penitentiary! (I requested a tour on my own, many years ago, but Corrections Canada is not interested in accommodating the curiosity of local residents – even if we are Professionally Nosy, aka writers.) But the Penitentiary was recently closed for good and the United Way of Kingston is cleverly fundraising by offering a limited number of tours. I turned up on a brilliant autumn day and met our volunteer tour guide, a retired guard named David Stewart.

The oldest parts of the Penitentiary were constructed in 1835 and walking through the front door is a deeply Victorian experience. It’s high and dark, and you are made to feel very small. You snake through a corridor and emerge in the Visitation and Correspondence (V&C) room. It’s a deeply dispiriting space: low-ceilinged, dingy and windowless, with glass-topped tables and fixed seats. The saddest part of the room is the children’s corner, which someone has attempted to make more cheerful with a little bright paint. It still contains a couple of strollers and a handful of toys, and there remains a poster on the wall reminding you that Loving Fathers Read to Their Children. I’ve seldom seen a space that so makes me despair of lost potential.

Our guide, Dave, mentioned that there were hidden microphones in each table, so that guards could monitor conversations between inmates and their visitors. KP was used as a maximum-security institution so there was also a visitation area where inmates were separated from their visitors by a glass partition and talked to them via telephone, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the movies.

We followed Dave outside, squinting in the sudden sunshine, and this was the first thing I saw.

More heartbreak. There are six of these “family units” for inmates who earned visitation privileges through good behaviour. For 72 hours at a time, their families could come to stay with them in one of these houses. There, they could cook their own food and generally try to fabricate a domestic life.

We walked past the family units and there was sudden murmur of admiration:

This is the North Gate, through which vehicles holding prisoners were originally admitted. The belltower at the top had an important function in the nineteenth century. According to Dave, all prison employees had to live within earshot of the bell. If there was an emergency, someone would ring the bell and everyone had to muster at the Pen to pitch in. Despite the context, isn’t that gate beautiful?

The barred windows below are on one arm of the Pen’s cross-shaped central building. They allow some light and ventilation into the ranges (rows of cells), and were cleaned by inmates. Inmates also cleared snow, gardened, cooked, did laundry, and many other tasks on the premises.

All that sounds quite orderly, if not downright cozy. Then you walk inside to view a typical range:

All the cells are singles, but the “typical” ones are arranged in rows of about ten. If you lived in one, you’d be able to hear and smell your neighbours – unless, of course, you were atypical. Inmates who couldn’t be in the company of others – especially the notorious – were held in isolation cells, which we didn’t view.

Inmates in insolation cells remained there for 23 hours a day. During the one hour they were permitted outside, they used one of a few small “yards”, where they were again alone. We didn’t view these yards but I grabbed a shot through a dirty window.

One of the doors to such a yard had a small trapdoor just below waist height. Dave explained that a particularly aggressive or dangerous inmate would be led outside in handcuffs. Once outside, the guard would close the door. The prisoner would offer his cuffed wrists through the slot and be released. Before returning, the prisoner would present his wrists for cuffing, and only then be allowed back into the building.

There was a third type of cell, called a “disassociation” cell. These were for inmates who behaved aggressively towards others. In the photo below, the concrete shelf you see is the bed. Dave said that when he began work at the Pen in the early 1970s, those in the “dis” cells got one meal a day, with bread and water at other times. Their mattresses were brought in at 10pm and removed at 7am. In more recent years, they received regular meals and kept their mattresses in the cells, and Dave suggested that the inmates fared better as a result.

The exterior of the “dis” cells.

One of the most surreal aspects of the tour was the contrast between the glorious weather and the very dim interior of the prison; the grim steel and concrete of the cells and the elegance of the limestone exteriors. This is the south face of the main building. Carved into the stone are the three main dates of construction and alteration: 1835, 1893, and 1992.

Beyond the main building, I saw a fenced-in area with a lot of clutter piled up.

It turned out to be the native grounds, where First Nations inmates could observe their faith. Here are the grounds from a distance:

Maybe what struck me most (after all the props and pieces that must have had their purpose) was the luxuriance of the grass – something we always take for granted, until entirely surrounded by concrete. I’m not sure what inmates of other religions did – there was mention of a chapel, but not of a mosque or anything else.

I think this might be a good place to pause. I was a bit stunned by the end of the tour, torn between lively historical curiosity and a genuine sense of mourning for all the known and unknown things that had happened – possibly in the precise spot where I stood.

I’ll return next week with more photos from the second half of the tour. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of the place? Have you ever toured an institution like this?



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10 Responses to “Kingston Penitentiary, Part 1”

  1. Thanks for sharing the tour, Ying. I used to work for the National Parole Board and I reviewed inmate case files before parole hearings for KP, Prison for Women and Warkworth Institution. It was quite the experience at what was (for me) the naive age of 19-20 to read about the inmates and their crimes as I put together packages with the key information that would help in the decision about their release or supervision. One thing that both cheered and depressed me was that overwhelmingly, even though I was reviewing inmate files from the “worst” institutions in Canada, inmates did not seem to be evil people…they had done evil things (overwhelmingly under the influence of a substance). I don’t mean that to belittle any victim’s experience at all but it is heartening for us as Canadians (and especially those of us living in a town with a preponderance of prisons) to remember that consequences are important but that by and large, we do not live in a population of hopeless criminals. Interesting to see images from where some of the people lived whose cases I reviewed.

  2. Starstruck says:

    Have you ever been to the Penitentiary Museum, Ying? It lacks the architecture and the deep sense of foreboding, but does show off a lot of what KP was like in its early years. The difference in cell styles and treatment of people, including women and children, compared to what you saw on this tour, is profound.

    Having attended KP regularly for work, and done a few tours while it was operational, I’m sure it must echo strangely now. I wasn’t going to bother with a tour, but now I’m curious. Until I read your post, I hadn’t given it the ‘writer’s eye’ before.

    I took a tour of P4W shortly after it closed, and that remains vivid for me. We think of imprisoned men as villains and have a hard time coming up with sympathy, but it’s hard not to think of women as victims.

  3. Michelle Gibson says:

    Glad I could help! I honestly don’t think I could have coped with the tour, but I’m glad you got to go. Great photos- that’ll do for me!

  4. Elizabeth Hanson says:

    Thanks for this Ying. It’s thoughtful, understated and revealing. The photos are very good. I would have liked to have done the tour.

  5. Laura Murray says:

    This is remarkable Ying — I haven’t gone, but find myself preoccupied with thinking about the closure and the life lived there. And the bizarre prospect of condos or a sailing centre there. You capture so well the space, the light, the complicated feelings.

  6. Ying says:

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Elizabeth and Laura! I’m so glad you found the post worth reading

  7. Misti says:

    That’s very interesting. I’ve been to Alcatraz and the cells are similar to your pictures. Even though they try to entertain the tourists at Alcatraz, I still got a similar feeling of sadness for people having to live their life in such a place, regardless of choices they may have made.

  8. Ying says:

    It’s interesting that they try to entertain at Alcatraz, Misti. What kinds of things do the tour guides do?

  9. Do the inmates have mattresses to sleep on or just boards?

  10. Ying says:

    They had mattresses, radicalrayray, but these were removed before the tour. In the Disassociation Unit in the 1970s, however, they were only given mattresses at night. The mattresses were taken away at 7 am each day.

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