After self-isolating for weeks and with the pandemic still raging I decided to go to jail. For the first time in a long while, circumstances had me out of town and with time to kill in Kingston, Ontario. I was somehow drawn to tour the Kingston Penitentiary. It was fascinating and jarring.
My first shock was that the big metal door slamming behind me left me sincerely shaken. I understood that my hand-sanitized and masked bubble kept me safe from the place and others on my tour and that I could leave at any time but the perceived finality of that sound resonated deep within me. How could it have felt for the thousands who heard that slam and then awoke in this place morning after mind-numbing, soul-wrenching morning?
The 21-acre facility on Lake Ontario opened as the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada in 1835. With Confederation in 1867 it became the Kingston Penitentiary. I learned that throughout its first decades its inmates included men, women, and until the Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed in 1908, children as young as eight.
Our guide said that he would answer any questions except about specific inmates. I had read a little before the tour and so knew that among the pen’s more famous guests were Communist Party leader Tim Buck, James Donnelly of the Black Donnellys, Boyd Gang leader Edwin Alonzo Boyd, and Grace Marks who we came to know through Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. And there was the monster who, with his wife, raped and tortured young girls – like our guide, I will not afford him the dignity of recalling his name.
While we saw the exercise yard, the factory-like work houses, and more, the most disturbing portion of the tour was the cell block. Four two-story blocks reach like spider legs from a central hub. Each barred cell is one pace wide and two paces long and housed one inmate. Each had a steel table and a steel bunk bed, the upper for sleeping and the lower for a desk. The cells allowed neither privacy nor dignity and about five square feet of floor space. I would have gone mad. I’m guessing many did.
Our guide led us around to former guards who each spoke of their area. The gentleman in the block told us of the 1971 four-day riot in which inmates took control of the prison. It was intriguing that while many wanted to kill the guards, only one was beaten up before all were locked away and left unhurt. However, the inmates released those who were kept separate from the others – the rapists and child molesters. They were mercilessly tortured and two were killed.
Over the years a number of people escaped. The story that struck me was the gentleman who in the 1930s somehow scaled the wall and made it all the way to Louisiana. He then had the temerity to write a snarky letter back to the warden. The letter is there under glass with its surprisingly neat penmanship. Our buddy, however, forgot that envelopes are postmarked and so authorities soon picked him up and hauled him home.
In 2013, after 178 years, the Kingston Pen was closed because it no longer met federal guidelines and a retrofit was deemed too costly. Good. We have always needed prisons because some people deserve to be locked away. We have always struggled, however, to balance criminality with mental illness and addiction, punishment with justice, retribution with rehabilitation, and our safety with their humanity. It’s tricky. We’ll probably never get it right. But for a few hours on a gray afternoon within tall gray walls I was reminded of our need to try.
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