Kingston Penitentiary

Category Exploration Date Status Province / State Country
Prisons / Jails May 20, 2017, June 10, 2017 Closed Ontario Canada

Posted on: Mon, 05/29/2017 - 15:15 By: Mike

May 20, 2017:

Kingston Penn ca. 1901

We arrived on a bright and sunny May morning, parked and proceeded to the front entrance to begin our tour.  My attention was initially distracted by the person positioned there to check me in and give me instructions before I noticed the sheer magnitude and domination of this entrance.  Of course, that was its design...  Instant intimidation of anyone entering through the massive doors.

Once checked in, we made our way along a few corridors to a holding room where waivers were signed, groups assigned and color-coded wrist-bands affixed.  Anticipation built as we looked at the paintings of clowns and other cartoon figures on the walls, a stark contrast to what was otherwise experienced by an actual inmate.

Clown painted on the wall of the visitor's centre.

Kingston Penitentiary was constructed in 1833 / 34, and opened June 1, 1835, as the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada.  Cells measured 26 inches wide, 8 feet deep and were just 6 feet, 7 inches high.  The entire complex was originally surrounded by a 12 foot high wooden fence, but by 1845, towers, stock walls, and the North Gatehouse were constructed.

In that same year, Antoine Beauche was convicted of being part of a pick-pocketing ring, and sentenced to three years at the Penitentiary.  During that time, on 49 separate occasions, he was whipped for infractions such as staring, laughing, whistling, giggling or idling.  He was 8 years old...

Photo of original central building.

Henry Smith, the first Warden, didn't begin work there until 1848.  He was eventually dismissed, however, because of violent punishments including flogging, darkened cells and locking inmates in upright coffins.  By 1849, there were already calls for the Penitentiary to be closed, including from George Brown, an MP.

From 1859 to 1861, a domed hub structure was built to connect the cell blocks together.

Charles Dickens.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the prison, as he had other prisons including Eastern State Penitentiary, which he deplored.  In contrast, Dickens said,

There is an admirable gaol here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect.  The men were employed as shoemakers, ropemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, capenters and stonecutters; and in building a new prison, which was pretty far advanced towards completion.  The female prisoners were occupied in needlework.

Current view of a cell on display.

From 1890, all the way through until 1914, the Penitentiary was overhauled.  Cell size was doubled and they included water, electric light and small tables.  In addition, a new block was built to house the female prisoners.

On September 10, 1923, Norman "Red" Ryan and other inmates escaped.  A fire was started in a shed as distraction and smoke-screen while they erected a ladder against the perimeter wall and escaped stealing a nearby car.

The following month, on October 17, Kingston experienced their first major prison riot lasting 6 days.  Guards were taken hostage, and the prison tailor shop was barricaded.  Tear gas was used to regain control of the prison.

Cleaning up after the 1954 riot.

The next major riot took place on August 14, 1954.  It lasted only two hours, involving over 900 prisoners.  It began during a morning baseball game when a guard was attacked.  Fires were set in various buildings, shops and a warehouse.  After an estimated $2 million of damage had been done, the Canadian Army and a unit of the RCMP were called in to support the retaking of the prison.

The third and final major riot took place on April 14, 1971 and lasted for four days.  Two inmates deemed "undesirable" died during the riot, and six guards were held hostage, but later released without harm.  After negotiations, the riot ended after the prisoners grieved the lack of recreational time, lack of work and concerns about the conditions at Millhaven prison which had originally been built to replace KP.

Officials touring the damage after the riot.

An inquiry held after the riot noted aged facilities, overcrowding, shortage of professional staff, confinement of prisoners not actually requiring maximum security and too much time in cells as causing factors.

Additional riots took place in 1975 which led to the creation of the Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada.

An RCMP investigation into the conduct of specific guards was conducted that resulted in the firing of 8 staff members.  Two guards implicated in the investigation took their own lives before the results went public.

A current view of a guard tower seen through a chain-link fence.

In 1999, Ty Conn became the first person to successfully escape since 1958.  He died, whether by accident, or by his own hand, while talking to CBC producer Theresa Burke on the phone, and surrounded by police in Toronto.

On April 19, 2012, Kingston Penitentiary's closure was announced, and the facility was closed officially on September 30 the following year.

May 30, 2017:

According to the Kingston Whig-Standard (article attached below) the vision for the site of Kingston Penitentiary, and the adjoined waterfront, will be revealed.  It may include such things as Canada's first sailing centre of excellence, a wind research facility, prison museum, condominiums, and possibly a hotel with shops and public space.

June 10, 2017:

After our initial tour in May, I had sent an email to the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.  In it, I itemized things I felt was good about the tour, but also some things where I felt it fell short.  Soon afterward, I was informed by the Commission that changes had been made to the format of the premium tours, and they invited me to return, as their guest, to review the improvements.  I gratefully accepted.

They had, indeed, made the improvements required to make the experience truly enjoyable, including smaller groups, more time, etc.  I offer my special thanks the manager for his responsiveness to the comments of visitors and obvious dedication.


CBC Fifth Estate:  Kingston Pen Secrets and Lies


Fifth Estate

Doc Zone: Tales from Kingston Pen


The Doc Zone

CBC Archives:  Fires and Rioting Damage Kingston Pen 1954

Kingston Riot

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