If walls could talk, would I want to hear what Kingston Penitentiary’s have to say?
Between its opening in 1835 and closure 178 years later, the maximum security prison held many of Canada's most dangerous and notorious criminals: Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Michael Rafferty, the list of evildoers goes on. Riots broke out in 1954 and 1971, with the latter lasting four days and claiming the lives of two inmates. In the 19th century, children as young as eight were confined in KP and lashed for breaking rules that forbade “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling and idling.”
Given the nasty backstory, I figured my recent tour of Kingston Pen would be mildly traumatic. But the experience shattered my grim expectations. After our friendly young guide welcomed us and warned us not to dawdle — “You don’t want to get locked in, right?” — we were led through the north courtyard, past the resort-like conjugal-visit apartments, and into the towering tiered central cellblock.
It was bleak, to be sure, but also quite beautiful. This unforeseen contrast became a running theme as we explored the enormous glass-topped workshop, mural-covered gym, and tepee-equipped First Nations grounds. Our guide, meanwhile, did a superb job of illuminating the history of the limestone prison. Did you know that Grace Marks, who was among the hundreds of women incarcerated in KP until 1934, was the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s bestselling 1996 novel Alias Grace? Or that Charles Dickens visited in 1842 and Earnest Hemingway did likewise in 1923? Or that the whole place smells faintly of almonds?
The most satisfying surprise of all was the involvement of several retired guards. They explained the day-to-day operations and culture of the facility in fascinating no-nonsense detail, from the incredibly rigid schedule to the jargon that appended “up” to every command and made “goof” the ultimate insult.
Most of the guards’ recollections had some kind of thoughtful anecdote attached. The story of a 1987 hostage-taking, for instance, revealed the captured guard’s powerful reason for coming back to work the very next day: “I’ve had a lot of rest. When I was a child in Poland, the Nazis came into my village and took my family. My mother hid me in a small cupboard and told me to take care of myself. I lived in that cupboard for three years. I would come out at night to look for food, and then go back to my cupboard. That was all the rest I’ll ever need.”
There were plenty of sombre moments like this one, but others of surprising levity. In 1847, we learned, a former inmate broke into KP in hopes of making off with the prison’s petty cash. After using a ladder to climb over the wall he grabbed the loot and tried to climb back up using a rope. But the rope snapped and, at roll call the next morning, there was one more inmate than there should have been. In the end, the reverse jail-break earned the hapless thief another 18 months.
About the only thing that didn’t surprise me about the tour was its popularity. Since launching in 2013 it has consistently sold out, prompting organizers to more than double capacity this year.
For anyone seeking insight into Canada’s sometimes-checkered past — it’s not all Musical Rides and Marathons of Hope, after all — the KP tour should not be missed.
WHERE TO STAY
The Residence Inn by Marriott Kingston Water's Edge overlooks more of Kingston's compelling historic sites, including the city's pretty harbour, the Royal Military College of Canada, and the Fort Henry National Historic Site. Perks such as free Wi-Fi are included for Marriott Rewards members.