Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction. K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.
On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.
On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.
Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.
One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835 to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years.
The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.
Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”
Bad Girls Too
The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).
The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar.
Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.
Too Tired to Cook up Trouble
Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.
The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage. 6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.
The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances. A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”
K.P.’s “Walk of Fame”
Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.
The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s. A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.
Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .
Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.
On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”
By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’
Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.
Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P
Through a Hole and Over the Wall
The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.
In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC. As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.
Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013. Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”
Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s Penitentiary Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .
The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty.