For Kingston Penitentiary, a dark history revisited

Concert roils divisions about prison’s legacy 

Credit: 
Supplied by Jennifer McKendry
Canada’s most notorious prison officially closed its doors on Sept. 30, 2013. Now, in 2019, questions surrounding the legacy of the Kingston Penitentiary have risen to a fever pitch.
 
The closure of the Kingston Penitentiary, previously known as the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada, marked the end of a 178-year period for a prison notorious for hosting some of Canada’s most recognizable criminals. Wayne Boyden, Clifford Olsen, and Paul Bernardo were chief among them. However, the fame of its constituents isn’t the only thing people consider when discussing the legacy of the prison.
 
The prison no longer houses inmates. The grounds are now owned and operated by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, a subsidiary of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture. On Sept. 14, 2019, the prison hosted its first open air concert, titled “Rockin’ the Big House.” 
 
The concert was organized by the United Way in collaboration with the St. Lawrence Parks Commission. It featured a lineup of exclusively Canadian content, with acts like Headstones, The Trews, Kasador, and Tom Cochrane. Members of the Tragically Hip were also on site as special guests. More than 2,500 guests attended.
 
However, the concert also sparked backlash from the community. As previously reported by The Journal, the concert’s ethical standing was called into question when Queen’s PhD student Linda Mussell wrote a piece for The Conversation on Sept. 3, writing, “a prison is no place for a party.” 
 
On Sept. 12, two days before the concert took place, local scholars, residents, and former inmates gathered in the JDUC Atrium for a teach-in to discuss the historical injustices committed by the prison and whether it was a fit location 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,” Lisa Guenther, a Queen’s University national scholar in political philosophy and critical prison studies, said at 
the event.
 
In an interview with The Journal, Jennifer McKendry, an architectural historian and Kingston resident, discussed the penitentiary’s controversial past. During McKendry’s time as a doctorate student at the University of Toronto, she studied the history of the penitentiary as part of her thesis.
 
“Historically, the worst thing that happened was there was a rule of silence. The fact that once you entered and you couldn’t talk was devastating ... you can’t talk at all, and if you did you were punished,” she said.
 
According to McKendry, besides not being allowed to verbally communicate with one another, the prisoners were also restricted from exchanging physical gestures, like nods or winks. Any breach of these rules was met with lashings from the guards. If breaches of rules were severe enough, inmates were often sentenced to solitary confinement.
 
While the prison sought to rehabilitate the inmates through these various punishments in order to make them fit to eventually re-enter society, McKendry pointed out the intentions differed dramatically from the results.
 
“It was supposed to be rehabilitation technique … some of the convicts actually went insane. It probably was directly related to the inability to communicate,” McKendry said. “It’s very scary when social theory that we dream up as a society with the best possible intentions ends up with the opposite results.”
 
The mistreatment of adult prisoners was far from the only reason the penitentiary leaves behind a complicated legacy. In its earliest days, it held children as prisoners, with the youngest on record being eight-year-old Antoine Beauche. He was handed a three-year sentence for his role in a pickpocketing operation. During his sentence, Beauche was given 47 lashes for “offences of the most childish character.”
 
Beauche was not the only child imprisoned there in the 1900s. Others, like 12-year-old Elizabeth Breen, received a total of six “floggings” during her time there. 11-year-old Alex Lafleur suffered the same punishment as Breen, only instead for the crime of speaking in French.
 
The prison is also notorious for contributing to Canada’s legacy of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. At the Sept. 12 teach-in, University of Ottawa professor Justin Piché called the Kingston Penitentiary “Canada’s first 
colonial prison.” 
 
Piché argued it contributed to efforts by the Canadian government to displace Indigenous peoples from their land and rob them of their culture.
 
According to McKendry, other humanitarian injustices occurred over the subsequent years. Poor conditions and abuse by guards led to three riots, occurring in 1932, 1954, and 1971 respectively. 
 
While all three led to substantial damages to the prison and required the use of armed intervention to quell, the 1971 riot left the most lasting impact. In the course of four days, two inmates were killed, and six guards were taken hostage, though they were eventually released unharmed. Much of the prison was destroyed as a result.
 
But the mistreatment of prisoners didn’t end there. In 1989, a report written by the warden of the penitentiary labelled it as a “dumping ground for bad guards.” According to the report, numerous guards in the prison were prone to terrorizing fellow guards and prisoners alike. 
 
This led to an investigation in 1999 led by the RCMP which used inmates as paid informants. The investigation, named “Correct Zero,” led to the eventual firing of seven guards who were found to be acting highly unethically. Two of the guards committed suicide before the results of the investigation were made public.
 
“These are deep humanitarian issues, and it does make you wonder if it is appropriate to have a rock concert in a place that was so devastating for so many people,” McKendry said in an interview. “The question is, does it 
trivialize it?”
 
Despite this, McKendry recognizes why others might support using the prison as a place to host community-based events.
 
“I think the negative aspect is, it does trivialize it. It suggests you can have fun and play music in a place that was so terrible. However, if it does preserve money and interest in the site, then I support it.”
 
Instead of trying to gloss over the legacy the penitentiary leaves, McKendry argued we should maintain it for educational purposes and acknowledge it as part of Canadian history. To dismiss it, some say, would paint a dishonest picture.
 
“The fact that [injustices] happened is a very strong reason to preserve the buildings, the site, because as a society, we have to acknowledge that we didn’t always  act towards an end result that was good,” McKendry said. 
 
“When you try to preserve historical buildings in general, people tend to think of city halls, churches, stores. If you do that, you ignore the other side of the coin, which are the penitentiaries and the insane asylums.”
 
McKendry said it’s important to acknowledge the role of the Kingston Penitentiary in a global context too, adding the institution contributed to a global prison culture that violated human rights.
 
“The penitentiary is of national importance. It’s not the Kington Penitentiary. It is a national, first-reform penitentiary in an international movement that started of f in France, and went to England, then North America. This is our contribution.”

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