Inside story

A look behind the bars of Kingston Pen

A cell in the Penitentiary’s main cell block, the oldest building in the facility.
A cell in the Penitentiary’s main cell block, the oldest building in the facility.
After Kingston Penitentiary closed to inmates four days ago, it was open to the public for the first time ever; all 9,400 tickets sold out quickly.
After Kingston Penitentiary closed to inmates four days ago, it was open to the public for the first time ever; all 9,400 tickets sold out quickly.

May 7, 1999 was an unusual day for Monty Bourke.

Bourke, the Warden at Kingston Penitentiary (KP) at the time, was notified early that morning of a line hanging over the prison’s wall.

It looked like an inmate had escaped overnight, he was told, and he immediately had an idea of who it might be.

“I got a call at 7:10 in my office,” Bourke said. “I said, check two cells.”

Overnight, prisoner Ty Conn had hopped over the 10-metre wall unseen, using a homemade ladder and a grappling hook.

Bourke, who served as Warden at KP between 1997-2002, told this story as he led the prison’s first public tour Wednesday morning. The 178-year-old facility shut its doors for good earlier this week.

“[Conn] hid up there and had a dummy in his cell,” Bourke said to the group, pointing to the second floor of KP’s industrial block.

This had been the first breach of the prison’s wall in 41 years. Conn’s escape was initially successful — he made it to Toronto and hid. He died in an apparent suicide two weeks later upon being located by police.

The Penitentiary has been home to the country’s most despised; rapists and murderers, among many others, have served their time there.

Its closure, along with one other prison, will reportedly save the federal government $120 million. Its facilities were outdated and it was expensive to run, according to Ministry of Public Safety.

Yet, this loss has brought opportunity. On Wednesday, limited-time tours of the facility began as a fundraiser for Kingston’s United Way branch. With all 9,400 tickets snapped up soon after they went on sale last month, expectations were high, but the first tour, led by Bourke, went off without a hitch.

The group of 20 was led through the prison yard and into the facility’s oldest structure, the main cell block. Inside, the building had a cold, damp feel.

“Smell that? That’s jail,” one of the Corrections staff pointed out as the group headed inside.

Under the interior dome was an atrium, and each floor and stairwell was caged behind red metal bars — a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood prison. Just weeks ago, inmates were living here, a notion evidenced by graffiti on a bulletin board, some of which was inscribed with the year 2013. “Godspeed old girl, you served us well,” one said.

The cells themselves were located in the wings, reaching two storeys high. They looked like stereotypical prison cells: a narrow and long room with a concrete bed, guarded by a barred door with a slot for food to be passed through.

Although KP’s original cells were only 29 inches wide, the more modern ones span the width of outstretched arms.

In their cells, prisoners at KP were allowed a small number of personal items, including books and televisions.

“Television helped the [Corrections] officers because it was a babysitter,” Bourke said.

With the advent of the Internet, computers for prisoners were banned due to fear of inmates using them to plan smuggling and escapes.

In an adjacent block lies the segregation unit, where the most infamous criminals lived at some point during their time at KP. These include recent inmates Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Mohammad Shafia.

Instead of bars, thick, heavy, metal doors guard the cells. In some, profanities were carved into the walls and tables, and one cell had a large Harley-Davidson logo drawn onto the wall.

Inmates living here got very little time outside — some even had showers inside the cells so they wouldn’t have to leave.

Those outside of segregation, however, had the periodic privilege of the outdoors.

At the far end of the complex, close to the lake, was a large fenced-in recreation area, surrounded by barbed wire, where the prisoners could get fresh air.

In its basketball court, a single ball sat on the gravel.

“I read the Riot Act from this gun port one evening,” Bourke said just outside the recreation area, pointing upwards at an adjacent building.

He went on to tell the group that some inmates had a grievance and refused to come inside to their cells.

“They started to bash in the bleachers.” That was when Bourke was called in to negotiate. Luckily, reading the exerpt from Canada’s Criminal Code was successful, and a major conflict was avoided.

Riots at KP weren’t unheard of. Three major ones took place during the 20th Century: in 1932, 1954 and 1971.

The riot of ’71 was the longest and most violent of the three. A group of inmates took several guards hostage and began to destroy the cell blocks while negotiations took place. The “undesirable” inmates were let loose from their segregation cells and beaten publicly by other inmates, resulting in two of their deaths.

After this took place, many Corrections staff suspected that KP would shut down.

“At the time of the riot, the finishing touches were being put on [KP’s] replacement … staff were routinely warned ‘the joint is closing’,” wrote Dennis Curtis and Andrew Graham in their 1985 book Kingston Penitentiary: the first hundred and fifty years.

Yet, the government insisted on keeping KP open until now. Although this week marks the first time it’s been open for the public, it’s not new for outsiders to get a tour of the facility.

One of the few who have is Rob Tripp, a freelance journalist who wrote about KP for more than 20 years. Formerly a Kingston-based reporter — he now lives in Calgary — Tripp spent many years in the Limestone City writing on prisons and crime for the Whig-Standard and the Toronto Star.

Throughout that time, Tripp had several opportunities to get inside, and encountered the same oppressive feeling each visit.

“It was always incredibly intimidating, even to go inside the place as a visitor knowing you’re going to get out in a couple hours,” he said. “You have this sense of dread.” He felt it walking in through the front gates, but said the feeling is amplified upon entering the cell blocks. Many inmates died of murder and suicide within the walls, Tripp noted.

“It’s a place of death and despair,” he said.

“I think it’ll be different when it’s empty and there are no prisoners there. There won’t be any sense of humanity there. It’s going to be a big empty vessel.” Tripp has been to almost every prison in the Kingston area, but says none of them have the same atmosphere as KP.

“The imposing main gate at Kingston Penitentiary was modelled on a Roman triumphal arch, meant to impose the notion of this society’s triumph over people who betray our values,” he said. “As soon as you walk in … you have a sense that society has crushed and defeated you.”

Kingston and prisons go hand-in-hand. Other than KP, the city has six correctional facilities in its vicinity, including the medium-security Bath, Collins Bay and Joyceville Institutions, and the region’s now-only maximum-security facility, Millhaven Institution.

Among these, however, KP’s notoriety is unmatched.

In recent years, this infamy came with consequences for its prisoners who, upon being transferred, would have to live with the stigma of having once lived in the rock bottom of facilities.

This image was built in the late 20th century, when KP became a protective custody institution, meaning that many of the country’s most reviled offenders — including ones who required security for their own safety — were automatically sent there.

According to Tripp, this altered KP’s identity in the federal prison system.

“Kingston Pen became this dungeon cesspool where we kept these lowlife scumbags. That was the perception at least,” he said. “In the eyes of other convicts, [its inmates] were no good, could never be trusted.”

KP never shed that image, he added, despite an attempt in recent years to have a more mixed population.

This stigma went beyond prison walls: the public’s ill-famed perception of KP is often said to be based on the vilified names and faces that lived there.

Still, there was a sense of backlash when the government announced its closure in April 2012 without a formal plan of where to send the inmates.

“I think you’re still seeing some [backlash] although a bit of it has petered out,” Tripp said, adding that some thought the move for closure was hasty and political.

In a rare move, the government had to transfer some prisoners to institutions out of province, and spent a lot of money doing so. The plan to build more maximum-security cells in Ontario, Tripp said, is behind schedule, which caused logistical issues clearing out the Penitentiary.

Without an active KP, it’s unclear whether Kingston will have an identity crisis. Since the city’s early days, the Penitentiary has been a local landmark representing Canada’s criminal justice system.

“In Kingston, there’s always been a sense of security and comfort knowing that KP is operating,” Tripp said.

There was a notion, Tripp said, that equated KP to a secret society — unless you were a prisoner, a family member, contractor or Corrections staff, you’d never have the chance to breach the walls.

“It was one of the most secure buildings in the country,” he said.

“There’s an incredible fascination finding out what it was like.”

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