If all the paperwork we had to sign was any indication it would seem some clever person had the brainstorm to make a visit to the decommissioned Pen as real as possible. Once our tickets were paid, no discount for youth 14 and up, we then had to print several pages each to sign our lives away. With initials indicating we had read each section. Which I managed to do in the wrong place. They are thorough, came back to me to initial in the marked spots. Tours are blocked by time and people must arrive 20minutes ahead of their block if they do not want to be left behind. There are no refunds for rescheduling. Not a problem when I need to be somewhere – we were so early I asked if we could join an earlier tour. Fortunately the well oiled machinery that makes the tours work run somewhat in an old fashioned order – much is on paper. A quick look, count, and check with a guide and we were in. We were officially in the blue group.
Some reminders before we started: bags subject to search, no AC or heat, no recordings (photos allowed), do not leave your designated group for any reason. We sat passively in a section of what was once a Family Visit area. My first thought was if we all seemed rather shellshocked what must it have been like for new prisoners? Of course we knew we would be leaving and the inmates who had been incarcerated were there because they had been found guilty of a major crime. Kingston Pen had been a maximum security prison.
It was made very clear to not ask about any of the well-known, notorious names, by law no information could be divulged. Of course one idiot did indeed ask about one prisoner. Yes, any Canadian in the group knew about him, but I certainly did not need to be reminded. Our guide managed to not roll her eyes, took a noticeable breath and reiterated that prisoners who had been incarcerated at Kingston Pen could not be discussed – and shut down the conversation.
The original Pen was built between 1833-1834, 154 cells in 5 tiers plus various outbuildings and residences for the administration. Any person working at the Pen had to be within hearing range of the bell that rang every day, if it rang out any time other than to announce the beginning and end of the day that was the signal that all staff were to come running. The cells were miserable, the museum across the street has a model of what they were like – step inside for size – a mere 27″ wide, 8′ deep and 6’7″ high. A man or woman would not be able to stretch from side to side, nor up. Cells remained this size until renovations between 1895-1906. For the first 99 years women were also sent to Kingston Pen although segregated from the men. Even children as young as 8 were imprisoned for petty theft. By the time the Penitentiary closed there were 431 cells and 120 rehab beds and had expanded to include shops, an education program, a palliative care unit, and various programs or services ranging from health care to religious.
Some of the shops, and eventually classes for credit, included carpentry, tailoring, mattress making and barbering. As we passed each sector we were greeted by former corrections staff who had at one time been employed at the Pen. One story about the barbers was that staff and prisoners could use the services provided for $2.00 per year! I still wonder if I misheard that. Cuts, perms and colours were all offered as this was a skill that could be used outside prison. Although wages were horrendously low, shop work up to $8.00 per day, general work 6.90 per day, skills learned could lead to outside work after terms were served. Half the wages were placed into a bank account and half could be used for purchases at the commissary; however, nothing was less expensive than outside the walls – a coke inside was a luxury.
There were three major riots, 1932, 1954, 1971. There were also several escapes and attempted escapes. One story we heard was about John Kennedy, born, lived, worked and died in the Pen. His father had been a messenger and raised his family within the walls of the Penitentiary. In 1948 John Kennedy, also a messenger, was shot by a prisoner, who had smuggled a gun into the car Kennedy was driving. As Kennedy was leaving the prison on an errand he was jumped – an excellent personal account can be found at thewhig.com/remembering uncle johnny – that prisoner was the last to be hanged at the Frontenac County Jail.
I have no idea if there was a Scared Straight program that might have allowed for schools to visit the prison, it sure would have had me walk the straight and narrow. Perhaps it was the very real feeling of being caged or trapped so far removed from the outside. Although not enclosed prior to the 1971 the Hub, where we were provided with a fascinating history and insight of its purpose, was where each cell corridor ran from, commonly known as a ‘range’. This was where guards kept control of all the coming and going of prisoners top to bottom. Looking down one corridor was a row of doors held sharply at even angles – I had a vision of men just gone with barely a whispered protest. Another range of heavy cell doors shutting out all hope. After the riot the Hub was enclosed with glass and an armoury 15′ deep was built (dug?) in the 1990s. Sort of closing the gate after the horse got out.
Some interesting facts: inmates were allowed up to $1500 in their cell. Foreign national inmates were subject to deportation upon release. In 1990 the complex was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada, 13 years before it was shut down. To date, being an Historic Site, along with the Women’s Prison, there has not been any decisions made for using the prime space.
As the years advanced and programs were instituted to improve the quality of life for prisoners, particularly as the population was aging, facilities also had a bit of a facelift. The Eagle and the Phoenix mural, done in the Regional Treatment Centre – repurposed from the gym as a offender-patient space – was painted by urban artists in 2003 as a gift to the inmates and staff. It certainly looks much nicer than bare brick walls. I found here, listening to a former nurse, talk about his time at the prison, a staff member with less of the hard edge presented by all the other former corrections staff. There was no question that they would never have been on friendly terms with any prisoner – they were guilty as charged. When the reasonable question about prisoners whose sentences were overturned was asked one member said until that time the inmates were always guilty. It was an interesting tour I was happy to leave.
40.00 Kingston Pen; 15.00 lunch for two; 13000 steps