Yesterday, John and I went back in time–no, not in a time capsule or anything that cool. John grew up in Kingston, Ontario. If you know anything about the city, you know that it’s home to Queen’s University, where I got my teaching credentials, but the city and surrounding area is also home to a number of prisons–some currently still housing those who see laws as suggestions or something to be broken rather than rules to live by. Those places include Joyceville, Collins Bay, and of course, Millhaven, the maximum security prison opened early after the riot of 1971 in the Kingston pen.
The Kingston Penitentiary, decommissioned as a prison in 2013, was built between 1833 and 1834 and has the dubious honor of being Canada’s first penitentiary. It consisted of one cell block with cells less than 30″ wide, 8′ deep, and 6’7″ high. Imagine being imprisoned in a closet. Men, women, and children were housed in those cells–the youngest a boy of 8 named Anton who stole a loaf of bread to feed his family. He was sentenced to 3 years for his crime. Lucky for him, he got work release and was able to leave his cell most of the day to help the men build the clock tower, stock walls, and north gate house, finished in 1845, which surrounded that original block. Unfortunately, any women housed in the institution didn’t get any fresh air until much later when a women’s building was added. Think of it: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. It’s a wonder they didn’t lose their minds. I would’ve. Cells were doubled in size at the end of the nineteenth century. Still, a very small world.
When you take the tour, they begin by telling you that, because of Canada’s Privacy Act, they can’t discuss specific prisoners. You can read about the most infamous ones here.
Other notable inmates include Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Roger Caron and Grace Marks. Wayne Boden, the Canadian “Vampire Rapist” died there in March 2006. Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party, was a prisoner at Kingston Penitentiary convicted under Section 98 of the Criminal Code during the early 1930s. Marie-Anne Houde, formerly convicted for the murder of her stepdaughter Aurore Gagnon, was sentenced to life in Kingston Penitentiary, following the appeal to commute her sentence to death citing health reasons. She was released on June 29, 1935.
Mohammad and Hamed Shafia were imprisoned in the penitentiary after being convicted of killing Mohammad’s three daughters and first wife. Michael Rafferty was serving a life sentence for his role in the kidnapping and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford of Woodstock, but has since been relocated.
To say the tour was eye-opening is an understatement. Our guide and the others who spoke to us along the way provided insight into what it might’ve been like. The KP had no massive mess hall like you see in movies. The men in a cell block stayed in their unit, not always in their cells with meals brought to them. We stood where the last prison murder occurred over the use of the phone, their only lifeline to the world outside. A former warder told us about the 1971 riots and the modifications made to the prison afterwards because of them.
At the time of its closure, there were over 400 inmates in the prison and rehabilitation center housed on its grounds. The KP also housed the regional prison hospital, and since faking an illness only got you from one prison to another, there were fewer such incidents.
Those prisoners have all been relocated to other more modern facilities across the country, where they have larger cells based on new government prisoner regulations. Some of the cells in block G that we visited were set up as they would’ve been when the prison closed. The toilet and micro sink are at the head of the bed.
Anything in them had to be purchased by the inmates through money earned or given to them. The max a family could contribute was $300.00 a year. Christmas and birthday gifts weren’t allowed.
This staircase, reminiscent of the one on the Titanic led to all the shops.At the top in the center was the school. I was surprised to learn that even at the time of closure, these prisoners had to earn their keep. The first $80.00 in their commissary account was set aside to use for their body bag in the event of their untimely death. Those prisoners who had a grade 10 education and could work, were given jobs in one of CORCON’s shops. (That’s the name given to prison industries) Some made or repaired the canvas bags Canadian letter carriers have used for as long as I can remember. Others made mattresses and or those folding doors used to divide gymnasiums, while some who wanted to become barbers provided hair cuts etc. On a weird note, some of them even made locks and keys, probably not the best trade to learn in jail. If you’ve visited Parliament Hill, the wrought iron staircase in the library was built in the Kingston pen. If you hadn’t finished grade 10, you couldn’t work, but you earned your keep going to school. You could quit at grade 10 or go on. According to our tour guide. some inmates finished university. She mentioned two in particular. One works with at risk youth, while another teaches at a Canadian university. This picture is of the mattress shop, one of the few buildings that survived intact after the devastating fire of 1954. This is a picture of a photograph. Today the shop is empty, but you can still see the exquisite workmanship of the original ceiling.
So how much does an inmate get for working? The max was around $6.00 a day. Of that, the prison kept half to be put in a saving’s account for the prisoner to either provide money to start a new life when his term was up, or pay for his funeral. The remaining $3.00 was divided up to pay for things that included 20% to room and board, more for cable etc. If the prisoner was lucky, he might have enough for a couple of chocolate bars and a bag of chips from the commissary once every 2 weeks.
Since fresh air is important, prisoners were let out into the exercise yard daily, but always under the watchful eye of the armed guards in the tower. This was a maximum security prison after all. At one time, this yard housed as many as 400 men with a gate dividing them into two smaller groups. They had a weight area, basketball hoops, even a ball diamond.
So what did I learn from my visit? For one, I am grateful I was raised to believe rules were meant to be followed. I would never have survived in a place like this. For another, I learned that some of those inmates were talented. While writing and drawing in the cells was forbidden, prior to the closure, that rule was relaxed. There were talented artists among the inmates. Sad but true, I
hope some of them now located elsewhere, have learned or will learn from their mistakes.
In conclusion, I have to admit I wish things had remained the same. All we hear about these days are Club Med prisons. Maybe they are more humane, maybe they even have a shot at rehabilitating prisoners, but in the end, it would be better if everyone just learned to follow the rules. No crime, no time. That works for me.