The ‘pen’ of Kingston past

Canada’s Penitentiary Museum examines the lives, work and punishment of inmates in the country’s oldest penitentiary

The penitentiary’s North Gate, which still stands on King Street West, was completed in 1845 as part of the original building. Its pillars represent the pillars of justice.
The penitentiary’s North Gate, which still stands on King Street West, was completed in 1845 as part of the original building. Its pillars represent the pillars of justice.
Canada’s Penitentiary Museum is located in the penitentiary’s former warden’s residence in the original grounds on King Street West.
Canada’s Penitentiary Museum is located in the penitentiary’s former warden’s residence in the original grounds on King Street West.

As the first capital of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald’s hometown, and a once-major port city at the juncture of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, Kingston boasts some of this country’s richest history. First settled in 1673, this city is dotted with historic sites, 200-year-old churches, and limestone buildings that date back to the nineteenth century. However, one of Kingston’s important historic elements is often overlooked in favour of more cheerful, tourist-friendly destinations—Canada’s first penitentiary.

The penitentiary’s rich history was one of the subjects explored by the Queen’s Annual Archives lecture on Saturday, Oct. 1. This year, Queen’s University Archives presented several social history tours, which offered insight into lesser-known facets of Kingston’s history.

The penitentiary tour, hosted by Penitentiary Museum curator David St. Onge and Sarah Smith, ArtSci ’06, described what life was really like for prisoners in the nineteenth century. The tour’s eager attendees were ferried around Kingston aboard the Confederation Trolley, and were told about the ins and outs of the prison’s past.

Kingston’s penitentiaries are known for housing some of Canada’s most notorious criminals: members of the Black Donnelly clan—a poor Irish family that was murdered after becoming squatters and killers themselves—were incarcerated in Kingston Pen during the mid-nineteenth century, and Paul Bernardo continues to serve his life sentence behind the prison’s limestone walls. However, the penitentiary’s life began long before these inmates took up residence in Kingston cells.

The conception of the penitentiary dates back to 1826, when Hugh Christopher Thomson, the Kingstonian editor of the Upper Canada Herald, told the government a penitentiary was needed in his rapidly growing town.

Thomson’s vision of the penitentiary is indicative of the prevailing attitudes of the era, as his description of the ideal penitentiary suggests that “[a penitentiary should be] a place by which every means not cruel and not affecting the health of the offender shall be rendered so irksome and so terrible that during his afterlife he may dread nothing so much as a repetition of the punishment, and ... that he should prefer death to such a contingency.” Thomson’s words sound severe, but the rehabilitation of the prisoners was one of the prison’s primary goals.

Instead of the word “jail,” the organizational committee chose to call the institution a “penitentiary,” which comes from the word “penitent,” meaning one who is atoning for sin. Because emphasis was placed on rehabilitation rather than punishment, St. Onge said, Kingston is still known as the birthplace of modern correctional service in Canada.

Between 1831 and 1834, 100 acres of land—now partly occupied by West Campus—were purchased and the building was constructed. Although elements of the building have changed over time, several of the penitentiary’s early features have remained intact. One of the most prominent exterior features of the prison, the North Gate, was completed in 1845 and still stands on King Street West. According to St. Onge, the gates, which were designed by William Coverdale, have some symbolic meaning: the two limestone pillars that flank the door represent the pillars of justice, and the gates were designed to remain constantly in shadow.

After the building was completed, the penitentiary was officially opened in June 1835. The first inmates admitted to the prison were male, and the first female prisoners followed a few months later.

For the first 99 years of the prison’s operation, both male and female prisoners were housed in the penitentiary, though in different buildings. Children as young as eight also served time in the early years, as all citizens of Upper Canada—regardless of age—were tried under the same penal code.

Hard work, strict rules and religion permeated the prisoners’ lives in the nineteenth century. In the early days of the penitentiary, wardens used manual labour in order to keep the prisoners occupied and to help the rehabilitation process.

It was thought that hard labour would encourage “clean living,” and that working in the pure air would help cleanse the prisoners of their sins. The prisoners worked on a myriad of projects, ranging from locksmithing to tailoring to tending the prison’s cattle farm and complement of pigs.

From 1835 to 1963, the prison also operated a quarry, which produced much of Kingston’s trademark limestone. The rock face of the old quarry, now part of the village of Portsmouth, still shows evidence of the inmates’ drilling and hammering.

When they weren’t performing hard labour, each prisoner lived in individual cells measuring only 0.73 metres wide, 2.4 metres deep and 1.83 metres high. These tiny cells contained only a bed, a Bible, a small bucket for drinking water—called a “piggin”—and a bucket to use as a toilet.

As the prisoners could only bathe once a month, the combined smell of excrement and body odour could be excruciating—prison records show that the warden was constantly ordering the windows open in order to dilute the stench.

Not only did the inmates of the penitentiary follow a strict regimen of manual labour, but they were also forbidden to speak at any time. It was thought that silence would promote a monastic, religious environment, and would prevent the prisoners from planning escapes or acts of violence.

This rule continued until approximately 1935, and was so strictly enforced that even guards were forbidden from speaking to one another in front of prisoners. Inmates of the penitentiary could go for years at a time without speaking, and speech was permanently forbidden for prisoners who had received life sentences.

If inmates did break the prison rules, they faced stern punishment.

The Penitentiary Museum features a punishment log from 1866, in which each offending prisoner’s name, infraction and punishment are precisely detailed.

The delicate, spindly handwriting of the log contrasts with the severity of the punishments. Crimes such as “repeatedly talking” garnered consequences such as “three meals bread and water and one night in a dark cell.” The most extreme example of punishment displayed in the log book is detailed in an entry dated Dec. 15, 1866.

A prisoner named Felix Gilbault had attempted to steal fabric from the prison’s shop, and was caught by the senior guard on duty. When accused, he stood up, took a “fighting position,” and said, “I do not care for you or any man in this G_d d__n [sic] prison.” As his infraction was deemed “very impertinent” and his language “quite uncalled for,” Gilbault received “an infliction of four dozen lashes with the cats and to be confined to a dark cell until further orders.” At the time, prison protocol stated that every prisoner receiving lashes would first be examined by a doctor in order to ensure they were fit enough to survive their punishment.

In Gilbault’s case, the prison doctor did not think he was healthy enough to bear 48 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails, which would amount to 432 whiplashes against his bare back.

As a result, Gilbault’s punishment was eventually lessened to two dozen lashes—a total of 216 individual strikes against his skin.

The prison’s most common punishments were lashes with “the cats” or bread and water meals, but more creative methods were also used.

One punishment, known as “the Box,” made use of a small, wooden, coffin-like structure. The offending prisoner would be locked into the tiny box and forced to stand for anywhere from 15 minutes to nine hours, with only a small ventilation hole for light and air. This method of punishment was used from 1847 to 1849, and more than 800 confinements to the Box were recorded in this two-year period.

The Box is only one of the many frightening and bizarre modes of punishment that are displayed at the Penitentiary Museum.

Corporal punishment was used in the prison up until 1969. In 1972, the Canadian criminal code was amended and authorities were prohibited from using corporal punishment on inmates. Privacy laws have also changed since the penitentiary’s early days; although nineteenth-century records—such as Felix Gilbault’s—are available to the public, modern prison records remain confidential.

—With files from Correctional Services Canada and Canada’s Penitentiary Museum

Kingston Penitentiary: the facts

• Date opened: 1835

• Security level: Maximum

• Rated capacity as of April 6, 2004: 564

• Number of inmates as of April 6, 2004: 494

• Women were allowed in the penitentiary for its first 99 years, until the Kingston Prison for Women opened in 1934. The women’s prison later closed in 2000.

• Author Charles Dickens visited the prison in June 1835. According to the CBC, Dickens had a fascination with prison systems, ever since his father was incarcerated.

• On April 14, 1971, 500 inmates rioted and held guards hostage in protest about prisoner’s rights. After a four-day standoff in which guards sought help from the army, two inmates were left dead and 11 injured.

• On Sept. 1, 1995, Paul Bernardo was convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. He has been incarcerated in a segregated cell at the penitentiary ever since.

• On May 8, 1999, Tyrone Conn escaped from the penitentiary. The first inmate to escape in more than 40 years, Conn eluded police for 13 days until allegedly committing suicide.

—Source: Correctional Services Canada and

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