Friday 3 October 2014


When giving people directions to my house, I sometimes say, "Turn right at the Penitentiary." They usually think I'm joking, but in fact I'm entirely serious. I live within view of Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s oldest and most notorious prison. 

Kingston Penitentiary, c. 1901 (photo from "Souvenir views of the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and the Thousand Islands, River St. Lawrence", 1901, via wikipedia)

Kingston Penitentiary was built in 1833-34, using blocks of limestone quarried by convict labour. (Actually, the building is older than the country itself: until Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the city of Kingston and its penitentiary were located in the British colony of Upper Canada.) When Charles Dickens visited Kingston in 1842, he found the town distinctly underwhelming. It had just suffered a disastrous fire that razed large portions of the city centre, including City Hall and the public market. Dickens’s rather sniffy assessment? “It may be said of Kingston, that one half of it appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up.”

He must have cheered up as he drove westward along the shores of Lake Ontario, because when he reached the nearly-new Penitentiary, Dickens had nothing but praise for it: “There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect. The men were employed as shoemakers, ropemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and stonecutters; and in building a new prison, which was pretty far advanced towards completion. The female prisoners were occupied in needlework.” I’m willing to bet that everything was extra-tidy and well-organized that day, for the celebrity visit. 

This building houses the woodworking and machine shops for inmate instruction. (photo credit: Boardhead, via wikipedia)

Dickens’s impression of the prison might seem excessively rosy but the Pen was a newer facility, built along more humane principles. For example, teaching trades to inmates aimed to reduce recidivism. However, prisoners were also subject to very strict discipline: inmates “must not exchange a word with one another under any pretence whatever”. Further, they “must not exchange looks, wink, laugh, nod or gesticulate to each other”. Inmates were flogged for breaking these rules. At the time of Dickens’s visit, there were roughly 400 inmates, including 24 females. The women were housed in “the Female Department”, a separate building within the grounds, until a new facility was built for them in 1934.

Some of the nineteenth-century inmates were children: there is a record of Antoine Boucher, an eight-year-old boy, who was sentenced to either two or three years’ imprisonment (my sources differ) in 1845. A twelve-year-old named Elizabeth Breen is also on record as having been flogged, as well as an eleven-year-old called Alex Lafleur. His offense? Speaking in French.

In its early days, those employed at KP were required to live within earshot of its bell. In the event of an emergency, the bell was rung and all employees mustered to help out.

An aerial view of Kingston Penitentiary, ca. 1919 (photo credit: Library & Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3259972, via wikipedia)

The penitentiary was in continuous use for 178 years until it was closed in 2013. Kingston Penitentiary was designated a National Historic Site in 1990 – an honour that sat uncomfortably with its use as a maximum-security jail. Because of its historical significance, it can’t be razed. There’s already a national penitentiary museum across the street, in the former warden’s Victorian red-brick home. And who on earth would buy a condo retrofitted into a place of such suffering? Until someone figures out how to use the space (the site is next to a harbour and looks out onto Wolfe Island, the largest of the Thousand Islands) there it stands, a constant reminder of the gritty and shameful aspects of our history.

(In October 2013, I was privileged to take a tour of the now-empty prison with my camera. If you’d like to know more, please check out Kingston Penitentiary, Part 1 and Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2 at my personal blog.)


Carol Drinkwater said...

Robben Island has maintained its prison. I visited Mandela's cell, stood in it, indeed, and considered the years spent in that tiny space. I think maintaining prisons as heritage sites is not a bad idea. They can act as a reminder of man's inhumanity to man. I was very taken aback by two points in your blog, Y S Lee: the women did not get their own block until 1934 and that this place was only closed in 2013. I spent almost a year in and out of Holloway (women's prison in north London) interviewing, working with females incarcerated there for a book "Young Women Crossing the Line", which I published with Women's Press. I was horrified by all that I witnessed and learnt.

Celia Rees said...

Thank you for this fascinating post. Such places are chilling indeed. I'm hot surprised no-one wants to convert it into modern living accommodation. Lots of Victorian asylums have been so converted but I wouldn't want to live anywhere with such a history of cruelty and suffering.

Y S Lee said...

YOUNG WOMEN CROSSING THE LINE sounds fascinating, Carol. I'll have to check it out. About the women's building: women and men were segregated in different wings before the construction of the separate building in 1934, and many were forced to bring their children into prison with them (where else could they go?). Also, the closing of the prison last year was highly controversial. It was seen by many as a political decision, rather than one based on the prison's present condition and facilities. Many employees felt it could have stayed open as a modern institution.

Celia, as I was looking into the woodworking shop (a place for convicts to learn), someone leaned over my shoulder and said, "Oh my god, this would make an AMAZING condo!" I'm with you, though.