Kingston, the penitentiary, and corrections

The Journal tracks the history of corrections in Kingston

Image by: Herbert Wang
Corrections beyond the Kingston Penitentiary walls.

Kingston Penitentiary, the oldest penitentiary in Canada, was built in 1833 and opened in 1835, predating Confederation. It operated for 178 years, closing in 2013 after being decommissioned by the federal government.

In 2015, the facility opened its doors once again, this time for the public’s education and entertainment.

Glancing back at the significance of Kingston Penitentiary and its use as an area of incarceration, rehabilitation, and tourism, the facility has always been crucial to Kingston’s economy.

All but three of Ontario’s correctional institutions are in the Kingston area—these facilities act as one of Kingston’s largest employers.

Through its closure and reopening, the facility over the years has held a constant presence in Kingston as not only a place of criminality and justice but also one of industry and education. 


Kingston Penitentiary was first built as a response to the expansion and growing population of Upper Canada. However, when the penitentiary’s construction ended in the early 1830s, the residents of Kingston had mixed reactions—elites were in favour, but tradespeople opposed it. 

In an interview with The Journal, Cameron Willis, curatorial and museum assistant at the Kingston Penitentiary Museum, explained the worries about the penitentiary at the time.

“[Tradespeople] thought [Kingston Penitentiary] would threaten their jobs—that criminals would be sent to a penitentiary [and] learn to trade and then out-compete them.”

Inmates helped construct the buildings throughout the penitentiary’s early days. This labour served as a punishment for inmates and became an essential force to cover operational costs.

Industry became a driving force at the penitentiary and inmate labour provided services for private businesses such as cabinetmakers and stonecutters.

Despite the threat to the tradespeople, farmers viewed the new penitentiary as an opportunity to sell food, such as potatoes, to government institutions. Gravel from the penitentiary was also used to pave local roads. 

“[There were] very positive potential opportunities, and the people who sold penitentiary goods certainly thought there was a positive economic engine for them, because they were into selling goods needed in the community,” Willis said. “[But] there’s two sides to that kind of argument.” 

Willis said politicians like Henry Smith, the penitentiary’s first warden, and John Counter supported the penitentiary’s development. They provided the finances and resources for the construction so the Kingston elite could show off to the rest of Canada.

“There was an opportunity to put Kingston on the map to make some money personally for these people, but also to kind of create an institution that would be looked upon by the rest of Canada as a model,” Willis said.

According to Willis, a substantial portion of the penitentiary’s officers were locals—some famous families, like the Kennedys, produced multiple generations of officers through the 19th and 20th centuries. This created a hierarchy full of favouritism and corruption. 

“It wasn’t until the 20th century you actually [saw] them spelling out the administration of the penitentiary.” 

After World War II, Kingston Penitentiary began seeking people with certificates or experience in social work, as well as university or college degrees, for their corrections officers.

The introduction of these individuals reflected the Correctional Services of Canada’s (CSC) shift in attitude towards rehabilitation and a growing relationship between the facility and Queen’s.


The regional shift of urban populations accounted for a change in inmates’ backgrounds.

Willis said, up until the 1850s, the institution housed inmates as young as eight and nine years old. However, after the introduction of the Juvenile Delinquency Act in 1908, no one under 14 was allowed in the penitentiary.

Crimes also changed from the 19th to 20th centuries. Moral crimes such as sodomy, for example, were abolished in 1969, and the right to incarcerate a person for adultery was abolished in the 1970s.

Willis said these crimes weren’t necessarily abolished due to a shift in moral attitude, but due to a “chain of actions” involving the police, courts, and “society as a whole.”

He also stressed the importance of understanding the social and political contexts of a given era in regard to how crimes are perceived.

“Without [social context], you kind of lose that sense of, why are these people here? Well, it’s not just because of individual human failing. There’re all sorts of other factors.” 

“[The] unfortunate reality of looking at prisons is that sometimes there is a scandal or a government investigation that will often lead to quite pronounced change in the institution.”

The 1934 and 1971 penitentiary riots are examples of events that provoked change.

Such shifts were also determined by the ruling authorities. When John Creighton was Acting Warden of the facility in the late 1800s, for example, the former 2.4-foot-wide cells were expanded to be five feet in width. Willis described Creighton as “reform-minded.”

Other recommended changes were gradually made over the following decades, such as paying inmates for labour—now a modern standard—introducing parole, and professionalizing staff as a response to local political conflicts over administration in the prison.

“So, we should adopt change, and thinking about change, and thinking about making changes constructively and planning for them,” Willis said.


Scott Edwards, retired correctional officer and former warden of Millhaven Institution, spoke to The Journal about the programs offered at correctional facilities today. He explained how the CSC worked to rehabilitate offenders.

When Edwards first began his career in the 1980s, there was an emphasis on employment skills and trades. Since then, there has been a gradual shift toward education: the lowest level of education required of an inmate has gone from eight to grade 12. 

Edwards also touched on the importance of corrections as an area of diplomacy. Throughout his career, he entertained and hosted diplomats and representatives from other countries to speak about corrections.

“And when they come to Canada to talk about corrections, they’re not coming to talk about towers and armed posts.”

He emphasized the importance of corrections programs, like ones surrounding substance abuse, cognitive skills training, family violence, and anger management. 

“[These programs were] kind of the biggest change that I witnessed from the day I started kind of through the first 20 years of my career,” he said.

“A more recent change, which happened just as I was retiring, was the changes to segregation and the impacts on mental health. I’ve seen more consideration being given to mental health and mental health offenders.”

He also highlighted the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons. Three to four per cent of Canada’s population is Indigenous and, in 2020, about 30 per cent of the offender population was Indigenous.

Edwards said that in an effort to remedy this issue, corrections have focused on healing lodges, healing circles, elders, and Indigenous liaison officers.


Maude Vandenberg, ArtSci ’20, explained her connection to the CSC in an interview with The Journal.

“I’ve lived in Kingston since I came to Queen’s in the fall of 2016, including the summers between the academic years. I had never considered a career with the CSC until I started working as a Tour Guide at the Kingston Pen Tours,” Vandenberg said.

She said her sense of community and connection to Kingston originated from her experience as a student at Queen’s.

“Even though we can sometimes think of prisons as something separate from the society we live in, with walls and towers dividing them from the rest of the world, the reality is that they are a part of our society.”

Guests come from outside the Kingston region to attend tours at the penitentiary. Vandenberg said she’d seen guests from the U.S., Europe, and Australia—she and Edwards both emphasized the importance of education in engaging and learning about corrections.

“I can see why we wouldn’t be the first choice as volunteers when people can volunteer at schools, hospitals and churches, I still think it would be rewarding for people. A bit of an eye-opener, and they might stumble onto something that you love to do,” Edwards said.

 There’s no longer a sense of generational duty within corrections, but one of opportunity.

“They kind of sucked people in. Kingston is kind of like that, right? You either leave right away, or you kind of get sucked in and become a part of Kingston. And I think with the guard force that was certainly very true,” Willis said.

This sense of community has influenced both Kingstonian Scott Edwards and previous Queen’s students Willis and Vandenberg.

“Having gone to Queen’s and working at a site so integral to Kingston’s history, I feel really connected to it,” Vandenberg said.


Correctional Service Canada

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