I must confess, I have a fascination for old prisons. As I explained when I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia a few years ago, there is often a special atmosphere in these institutions, both gloomy and oppressive, but also somewhat fascinating. So I’ve been promising myself to visit Kingston Penitentiary as soon as I could and that’s what I finally did last week.
The fascinating thing about Kingston Penitentiary is that it was in operation until 2013. Inaugurated in 1834, it was one of the first prisons in Canada and one of the oldest prisons still in operation in the world when it closed six years ago.
Visiting the Kingston Pen is a bit of a journey through the history of Canada’s prison system. The guided tour allows you to learn more about the construction of the prison, how it has evolved over the years, and about milestones in its history.
We have learned, among other things, that the prison had for almost 100 years a wing for women prisoners (before they got their own establishment), that children were also imprisoned there in the 19th century, that there were some escapes (and a few famous riots) and that the lives of prisoners and prison guards beat at the rate of the big bell at the entrance of the establishment.
Of course, it is possible to visit cells. Some prisoners also agreed to leave some personal belongings before being transferred to another penitentiary in 2013, so that some cells are set up as if they were still inhabited. The graffiti of prisoners found here and there on the walls remind us that the place was still full of life not so long ago.
The Kingston Penitentiary is a National Historic Site of Canada, due in part to its architectural value. Its imposing limestone buildings (mostly built by prisoners) are neoclassical. Its model served as an inspiration to prisons for more than a century. Even the writer Charles Dickens visited it, just as he did for the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
What I particularly liked about the tour was the fact that it incorporated the participation of retired penitentiary workers. These former prison guards or correctional officers are perhaps best placed to tell the highlights and anecdotes of the penitentiary’s history.
And if you have a special interest in the history of prisons, the Penitentiary Museum of Canada, located just on the other side of King Street in the former residence of the governor, is worth visiting. The museum includes several artifacts that trace the history of the Canadian prison system and is free (although you can leave a donation if you enjoyed the visit).