Behind bars

My summer as a tour guide at the Kingston Penitentiary

The staircase in the Shop Dome in the Kingston Penitentiary.
Via Dana Mitchell

When I was hired to work at Kingston Penitentiary this past summer, I entered the prison with hesitation.

As I walked through the large and looming North Gate on that first day in May, my heart pounded uncontrollably, not because of the great historical significance, but mostly because I was nervous about how I would find my place in such an unfamiliar working environment. 

Looking at it now, I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t have a memorable first experience walking through its doors. Over the summer I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of people venture through the Pen, each one with their own distinct reaction. Some were excited and joking, others seemed more serious, attentive and curious, but they all understood to some extent the significance of the place they were in. 

In my case, I couldn’t connect with it right away because I had no real knowledge of the Penitentiary’s history. If anything, my first impression of the Pen was that of a sad and empty place, stripped of its furniture and intended purpose. 

Although it’s role as a prison was not a happy one, the idea that it stood empty after 178 years of service was tragic in my opinion.

This summer, the Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors to the public, almost three years after its official closure in September 2013. Tickets were sold out all through the summer and fall, with approximately 600 to 700 people visiting each day. Although this wasn’t the first time the Pen hosted tours, it had never been attempted on this large a scale. 

The project, headed by St. Lawrence Parks Commission, has given thousands of spectators the opportunity to discover what lies within Canada’s oldest and most notorious maximum-security prison. 

When it was announced in May that the Pen would be hosting public tours, a sense of mystery that surrounded the historic sight escalated in mind. Even though I had heard the familiar jokes about the prison’s proximity to Queen’s, and knew small fragments of its vast history, the appeal to visit the Pen was pretty much lost on me. 

It’s strange to think, after spending nearly six months within its walls, how much that’s changed. It took me a while to find my bearings in the Pen. It’s deceptively small from the outside, and every one of its buildings has its own stories and unique history. 

Going through training to be a tour guide, I had the sense that I could lose my way very easily and wasn’t sure how I was going to learn all of its facts and figures.  

Retired correctional services staff members took us through the prison, telling us about their experiences working within its walls and giving us glimpses into the real world of Kingston Penitentiary. 

Listening to them, wide-eyed and slightly anxious about the prospect of giving tours, the Pen began to come to life. Suddenly the reality of where I would be working started to sink in. 

There’s a strange irony in my experience working at Kingston Penitentiary. While my time at the Pen was overwhelmingly positive, for many people this wouldn’t have been the case. 

The Kingston Pen has had its times of horror and its times of happiness, but for those housed there prior to its closing, the confines of the walls would have been their entire existence. 

There were about 30 student staff members hired to lead the tours and run admissions. For most of us, we didn’t know anything about the Pen so all of the information was completely new. 

We were essentially in the same position, none of us sure of ourselves or the way things would work in the coming weeks. It was difficult for me to find my voice in the confusion of those first few days. 

Everyone seemed so excited and outgoing and I was determined to be the same. I’ve always considered myself a relatively quiet person. I like listening, but talking in front of others has never come easily. I watched as my coworkers began giving tours and was always impressed by how effortless they made it seem. Just the idea of it was impossible to me. 

Fortunately, I was hired to work admissions and it wasn’t until July that I was asked to start giving solo tours. 

I remember standing in front of my first tour group, hands shaking and regretting ever deciding that this would be “good for me”. 

I made a big deal about it being my first tour and my group was sympathetic and kind. I don’t think I did a bad job, but it was such a blur that I honestly can’t remember. When it was over I just felt a sense of relief and satisfaction. I had accomplished the “impossible” and I will always be proud of myself for taking that risk. 

Suddenly I found myself regularly giving tours to groups of 20 people, taking them through 178 years of history. Tours made my days go by faster and I actually grew to enjoy them. 

Eventually it became second nature and gave me the opportunity to meet thousands of people from all over the world, each with their own connection to the Pen. It never failed to surprise me how many lives the Pen had affected, whether it be directly or indirectly, and it was these connections that made the tours feel more personal and less of a tourist attraction.

With 34 tours running each day, we got into a comfortable rhythm within a short time. The staff became very familiar with the limited selection of prison jokes — yes, we will let you out at the end of the tour — and the constant questions about high profile inmates — no, we can’t tell you where his cell is. But even when the tour became repetitive, it was the people I worked with that made it enjoyable. 

The entire staff became a family of sorts and working with them made the experience so much more meaningful. 

I can’t believe that I was ever nervous to get to know them because I have never felt closer to a group of people in my life. As the weeks of sold out tours passed, the Pen didn’t feel empty anymore. It became a home for us in those months, and despite battling heat and mild exhaustion, I had a lot of fun.

On Saturday, Oct. 29 Kingston Penitentiary closed its doors once again following five successful months of tours. Although it was a busy and tiring season, I will miss the Pen and the people I worked with even more. 

Unlike the majority of offenders that spent time in Kingston Penitentiary, I was sad to say goodbye.

I don’t think I could ever forget the tour route or stop myself from working random facts into conversations, but I also wouldn’t want to. I learned so much in my time at the Pen about its history, the workings of federal corrections in Canada and also about myself. 

It has been the most interesting summer job, but also the most rewarding. After a few months I had a sense of pride coming to work and I’m happy I got the chance to be a very small part of its immense history. In a way, Kingston Pen has become a part of me.

After everything I’ve learned, I have developed a deep respect for the Kingston Penitentiary. 

It has seen such tragedy, and yet standing there at night after all the tours have ended, there’s a sense of peace. I don’t think these realities should be forgotten, but I do believe that there is room for growth and the foundation for something good to come in the future. 

While it is still unclear what will happen to the Pen next year, I remain hopeful that it will open its doors once again for tours. Kingston Penitentiary deserves to have its story told and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. 

In the end, it was a pleasure to spend my summer in prison. 

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