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Do not pass go: Canada’s first penitentiary closed after 178 years of service, but its legend lives on

August 2016

On the shore of Lake Ontario in Kingston, Ontario, sits an 8.6 hectare plot of land, encircled by large, foreboding limestone walls containing several limestone buildings within them.  This complex was once known as Kingston Penitentiary, British North America’s first penitentiary.

The prison sits beside Portsmouth Harbour, a site chosen for its convenient access to the water, the primary transportation route in its day, and abundant quantities of fine limestone for construction.

The penitentiary was opened on 1 June 1835 as the Provincial Penitentiary for the Province of Upper Canada.  Designed by American architect William Powers, the original prison consisted of a single limestone cellblock with 154 cells on 5 tiers, along with some outbuildings, surrounded initially by a 12 foot high picket fence.  The cells were 29 inches wide by 8 feet deep and 6 feet, 7 inches high.  After the prison opened, Powers was made the first Deputy Warden.

In the early years of the prison, children as young as 8 years old were incarcerated within the prison walls.  Women were incarcerated in a separate facility within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary until a separate facility, the Prison For Women, opened across the street in 1934.

Initially all the staff lived in Portsmouth Village so as to be within earshot of the prison bell that rang every at the prison until the day it closed.

The prison saw major renovations in the 1840s and 1850s with the addition of three additional ranges: B2, B3 and B5.  The stone walls, towers and the north gatehouse were built in 1845 and the dome was added by 1861, connecting the four cell blocks.  The north-wing originally housed the dining hall, kitchen, hospital, keeper’s hall, administrative offices and residences for senior officers and their families.

In the late 1830s, a new building to house hall and chapel was built and by the late 1840s, a building was constructed to house the hospital.

Additional buildings were built starting in 1845 to house workshops such as blacksmithing, carpentry tailoring and shoemaking.

The union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 resulted in the penitentiary being re-named the Provincial Penitentiary for the Province of Canada West.  It was after the Confederation of Canada in 1867 that saw the penitentiary take the name Kingston Penitentiary, or KP for short.

During the time it was open, Kingston Penitentiary had three major riots.  The first was in October 1932 and the second in August 1954, the second of which resulted in extensive damage to the central dome, resulting in it being re-built.  However, it was the third riot that was the most serious.

Starting on 14 April 1971, inmates rioted for four days, taking six staff members hostage, killing two of their fellow inmates and damaging the south wing so badly that it never re-opened as a cell block.  The riot resulted over inmate grievances that included lack of recreational time, lack of work and concerns about conditions in the newly built Millhaven Penitentiary.

The riot only ended when the Warden contacted the army at nearby CFB Kingston.  Soldiers surrounded the prison with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets and advised the rioting inmates that they either surrender or the army would be coming in to the prison to end things.  The inmates surrendered and released the staff, none of whom were seriously injured.

As a result of the riot, security substantially increased and prison reforms were instituted.  The Regional Reception Centre, the unit that received and assessed newly sentenced inmates, was moved to Kingston Penitentiary, remaining until being moved again, this time to Millhaven Institution in 1981.

Kingston Penitentiary also hosted three other independent institutions within its walls.  The Regional Treatment Centre acted as a prison within a prison for those requiring mental health and addiction treatment.

The Regional Hospital provided palliative care for elderly inmates.

Temporary Detention Unit moved to Kingston from Millhaven in February 1998.

In April 2012, the Government of Canada announced that Kingston Penitentiary, along with the Regional Treatment Centre, would close due to the fact that its aging infrastructure was making the prison not-viable anymore.

Kingston Penitentiary officially closed on 30 September 2013 and a chapter in Canada’s penal system came to an end.

During the life of Kingston Penitentiary, seven staff members lost their lives in the line of duty: Guard Henry Traill in 1870, Instructor David Cunningham in 1890, Guard Joseph Purcell in 1919, Guard Malcolm Earl Jenkin in 1926, Guard John J. McCormick in 1936, Guard John D. Kennedy in 1948 and Guard William C. Wentworth in 1961.

Several notorious prisoners served their sentences behind its walls, including Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Clifford Olson.

Kingston Penitentiary was subject of much controversy in later years when it became apparent that the prison was a dumping ground for “problem” correctional officers.  After an investigation by the RCMP into drug smuggling and corruption, eight officers were terminated in 2001.

Since the fall of 2013, the prison has been open occasionally for public tours, ones that quickly sell-out.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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