Kingston activists, scholars question ethics of prison concert

University and local activists host public teach-in on the ethics of prison tourism and entertainment

Image by: Luca Dannetta
Local activists question ethics of using former prison for entertainment site. 

Local activists and scholars are arguing that a shuttered prison is an inappropriate place to host a rock concert.

A teach-in on the respectful use of decommissioned prisons brought activists, former inmates, and scholars of prison tourism together in the JDUC Atrium last Thursday to discuss the ethics of prison tourism and entertainment. 

Jointly organized by the P4W Memorial Collective, Queen’s University Studies in National and International Development, and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group Kingston (OPIRG), the event was a response from concerned citizens to Saturday’s Rockin’ The Big House concert, which brought local artists together on the grounds of the old Kingston Penitentiary.

All proceeds from the sold-out concert went to fund programs and projects for the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A).

The event’s ethical standing was called into question when Queen’s PhD student Linda Mussell wrote a piece for The Conversation two weeks ago, stating that “a prison is no place for a party.” 

She argued that holding tourist attractions or entertainment events at the penitentiary dismisses the building’s “dark history,” which includes confining “wrongfully convicted individuals” and “mass incarceration of Indigenous prisoners.”

Speakers who attended on Thursday included professors Justin Piché of the University of Ottawa and Kevin Walby of the University of Winnipeg, who have written extensively on prison tourism and the Kingston Penitentiary tours, along with several formerly incarcerated activists such as Richard Atkinson, Ann Hansen, Donny Hogan, and Jimmy Hogan.

‘Is there nowhere else?’

Activists and organizers speaking at the event emphasized conversations about the disproportionate effect of Canada’s prison system on Indigenous peoples.

Lisa Guenther, a Queen’s University national scholar in political philosophy and critical prison studies, and a key organizer of the event, opened with a land acknowledgement.

Guenther went on to emphasize the intersection of issues related to mass incarceration and colonialism that darken Kingston Penitentiary’s past, arguing that it was not an appropriate place to host a concert.

“This is a party that is being hosted in a prison where many people suffered and lost their lives, and where the intersection between colonialism, capitalism, and incarceration is still very much part of our life now,” Guenther said.

Justin Piché, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, echoed this idea.

“We’re thinking not just about the ethics of the Rockin’ The Big House concert, but the broader context of racial colonial capitalism in which this event is taking place,” he said.

Emphasizing the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples, Piché called Kingston Penitentiary “Canada’s first colonial prison” and set it in the context of a much wider effort on the part of the Canadian government to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land and cultures.

In the context of this history, he questioned whether the ends of raising money for United Way KFL&A justified the means, namely, hosting a concert in a place where people lived, suffered, and died.

“The United Way and their partners should have taken some time to talk before they planned to ‘rock’ the ‘big house,’ ” Piché said.

Piché called out the United Way, questioning the morality of using a prison concert to raise money to help the poor.

“Do the ends justify the means—putting on a concert in a venue that feeds into sensationalism, fosters voyeurism, and justifies the violence that took place at Kingston Penitentiary and continues elsewhere?” Piché said. “Is there nowhere else in Kingston to host a benefit concert?”

Kevin Walby, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, called on the United Way to find a more appropriate and just method of raising awareness and promoting justice.

“Rather than profit from the allure of punishment at Kingston Penitentiary, a different approach would be to have musicians perform in any of the other operational prisons around here,” Walby said. “Playing a concert in prison can challenge carceral logic, raise consciousness about imprisonment, display solidarity.”

Walby argued that the Rockin’ The Big House concert was counter to what the United Way claims its objectives are.

“Instead of saying, as United Way has, ‘the ends justify the means,’ the United Way should use means consistent with their purported ends of justice,” Walby said.

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