TORONTO – Child killers, rapists, drunks, horse thieves and even boys and girls have all spent time within its high, foreboding walls. Hard time.
Within days, however, its cells will be empty and the historic Kingston Penitentiary, the country’s most notorious prison, officially closes.
Since its opening in June 1835, the lakeside “pen” some have dubbed Canada’s Alcatraz has been home to assorted miscreants and a veritable who’s who of the country’s worst criminals.
In recent times, the list includes serial child killer Clifford Olson; Paul Bernardo, who raped and killed two schoolgirls; and Mohammad Shafia, who helped drown his three teenaged daughters.
Appropriately, perhaps, it’s long been known by prisoners as the Hall of Shame.
Lee Chapelle, a property offender who spent relatively short stints in “KP” in 2001 and 2008, says it was an old rundown dirty “dungeon” that stood out among the various prisons he’d been in.
“The moment you go through the gates, there is a darkness about it,” Chapelle said from Goderich, Ont.
“You feel the heaviness in the air.”
Many have come and gone, their names long forgotten. Some walked free having served their sentences. Some killed themselves knowing they would never be free. A few desperate souls managed to escape.
The penitentiary, among the oldest continuously used prisons in the world, is closing because the federal government says it is outdated and too expensive to run. Its future, perhaps as some kind of tourist attraction, is uncertain.
What is certain is that if its tiny, windowless cells and thick stone walls could speak, they would tell stories of violence — perpetrated by, and on, those sent to the infamous Big House.
Through the decades, those walls have absorbed the swish of cat-tails meeting bare backs and chests and the howls of excruciating pain from whipped inmates. Some were children, like Antoine Beauche, who was just eight years old when he was repeatedly lashed in 1845.
They have borne mute witness to corrupt and sadistic officials — perhaps the worst of whom was Francis Smith, son of the first warden, who starved and brutalized inmates for sport, bullied guards, and sold prison supplies and pocketed the money.
The prison, modelled after one in New York State, has seen the tumult of savage riots in which inmates clubbed others to death; madness and evil; and the deafening silence of “the box,” an upright coffin in which hapless inmates were sealed for hours at a time.
Some of the stories were documented by investigators, others by historians such as J.A. Edmison in his book “The History of Kingston Penitentiary.”
Over the years, various commissions — the first within little more than a decade of its opening — have investigated conditions inside, each leading to improvements in how captives were treated, often after major inmate disturbances.
In August 1954, for example, the military and RCMP were needed to quell a riot involving 900 prisoners.
Correctional officers have described an atmosphere tense and infused with fear. Physical altercations with inmates were constant. Guards were frequently the target of prisoner urine, feces, spit, kicks, and punches.
“More often than not, there was some type of conflict or confrontation over something as simple as feeding them,” says Mark Joyce, a correctional officer at the facility from 1996 to 2002.
In April 1971, about 500 inmates angry over lack of recreational time and other issues, rioted for four days, took six guards hostage, destroyed large parts of the prison, and killed two inmates.
Once again, armed troops from nearby CFB Kingston were needed to intervene.
“You walk in there and you feel like you’re walking into some weird tombs of hell or something,” says David Fairbairn, who delivered educational programming to inmates around that time.
In latter years, KP has been home to a treatment centre for mentally ill inmates and been primarily a protective custody facility — for those like sex offenders unable to survive in the general inmate population. Terminally ill prisoners went also there for palliative care and to die.
“The association with it is very dark,” Chapelle says. “It’s a horrible place.”
Joyce says he always felt KP should have been closed, despite the millions of dollars spent on renovations over the years. Among other things, the four tiers and the flights of stairs in the dingy facility made moving offenders around difficult.
Robert Crandall, whose home of 50 years abuts the prison parking lot, remembers the sound of helicopters landing in the ’71 uprising.
Otherwise, he says, the prison’s thick walls seal in its secrets and the facility — a stone’s throw from his backyard — barely impinges on the upscale, treed neighbourhood.
“The Pen itself has always been very quiet,” Crandall says.
“But the guards come out in the early hours of the morning, and they forget where they’ve left their cars and they turn on their car alarms, and that’s about the only sign of life we get out of the place.”
Now, even the car alarms will be silent.