Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.
There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.
Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.
It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.
Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.
After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.
It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.
This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.
As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.
This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.
At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.
I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.