Beautiful isn’t what most would think when they hear about the Kingston Penitentiary. It’s housed some of Canada’s most notorious criminals, convicted of some of the most heinous crimes.
But the 19th Century architecture is massive and striking with its limestone block exterior, high vaulted ceilings, arches and exposed brick. But make no mistake, it’s clearly a structure meant to contain those inside with a 24 foot cement wall that surrounds the complex topped with layers of razor sharp barbed wire.
Inside the massive walls are a maze of buildings that include the main cell block, administration offices, an industrial shop, hospital, kitchen, gym, the Regional Treatment Centre and the women’s penitentiary.
Yes, women. And children.
For the first 99 years the Kingston Penitentiary housed women, although they were segregated from the men in a separate building. In its earliest years, children were sent there, for things like pick pocketing and burglary. Some were as young as 8 years old.
While children haven’t been imprisoned at KP in years, children are welcome there. Within the complex are a row of what look like small townhouses; units for inmates to have conjugal visits or Private Family Visits (PVF) for up to 72 hours. Each unit has a small front yard with a patch of grass, one also had a children’s play structure, a reminder of what inmates might be missing while on the inside.
The main cell block leads to the Dome; the centre of Kingston Penitentiary where all of its inmates have passed through. It connects all four cell ranges like the spokes of a wheel.
The Dome was also the setting of the 1971 riot, the worst in the facility’s history. It lasted four days and involved the taking of six staff hostages and the death of two inmates. Damage was so extensive to the south wing that it never reopened as a cell block.
The cells are roughly 10 feet long by 5 feet wide, about the arm span of a woman no taller than 5’4”. The original cells built between 1833-1834 measured 2.5 feet by 8 feet deep and just over 6 feet high. There are no windows but bright fluorescent lights reflect the white painted concrete walls, making it brighter than one would expect for a prison. Some cells were in the same state as its guest had left it with makeshift hammocks from sheets and posters on the walls.
It didn’t look nearly as homey in the segregation wing, where prisoners were taken as punishment for aggressive or violent behaviour towards other inmates or guards. There, they would spend 23 hours a day locked up with the option to spend their one hour a day in fresh air; a court yard no bigger than three cells surrounded by more concrete walls with just a patch of sky visible.
Steel doors, not bars, kept them segregated, with just a slot to receive meals or for their hands to be cuffed if they were to be taken out, always escorted by two guards even if it was to the shower just three feet across the hall. A concrete block served as a bed with a metal toilet that still had a lingering aroma. Messages from past inmates – phrases like ‘God Save Me’ and ‘Please Help Me’ are scratched into a rusted metal desk. On the wall, more messages and a grid with numbers.
Possibly a calendar counting the days until solitary confinement was over. Some would spend one day, while others could be there for as many as 100 days.
The industrial shop is the most striking with a grand stone stair case and a vaulted ceiling. That’s where prisoners were put to work as blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and shoe makers. Prisoners made everything from rope, mail bags for Canada Post, to the metal railings that line the Parliamentary library in Ottawa.
Deemed a National Historic Site in 1990, the Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors to the first prisoner on June 1, 1835 and closed its doors on September 30, 2013. As to what will become of the facility remains to be seen as the decommissioning is expected to take another couple of years.