If there’s one Canadian city that has been top of mind across the country this week it’s Kingston, home of The Tragically Hip.
I had the good fortune to be on the receiving end of a media invite to see their performance in Ottawa. It was actually my first time seeing them live in concert (!). It was a great show, and so very moving. I think it forced many of us – particularly those who are my age or thereabouts – to think about our own youth, our own mortality, about the things that bring us joy and move us to dance, and whether we are doing enough of those things:
We were also one of the estimated 11.7 million Canadians who tuned in to the CBC broadcast of the Hip’s last concert. We watched the first part of it with a thousand other people at Dovercourt Park and the latter part from the comfort of our couch at home. (What can I say. The mosquitos were bugging me.)
During the broadcast, there were a couple of shots of the square in downtown Kingston where a not-so-small army of fans came to watch the show. It was amazing, and slightly strange to think we were just there.
I wrote the leadup to our recent road trip to Kingston over a few posts. To summarize: if you’re travelling from Ottawa, Brockville is the perfect distance for a pit stop (whether it’s for lunch or a visit to the Aquatarium). Today I am finally writing about our visit to Kingston Pen.
First, some backstory. We embarked on a road trip to this part of the province around this time last year. Part of our visit included the old warden’s house across the street from Kingston Pen (correctly known as the Correctional Service of Canada Museum). We REALLY enjoyed our visit. It was utterly fascinating, so when we heard there were tickets being sold for guided tours of Kingston Penitentiary (which had been closed since 2013) we had to jump at the chance.
We booked our tickets online and showed up at the appointed time.
Kingston Pen (KP) is an imposing structure from the outside, to say the least.
How many times have we driven past, wondering what was on the other side of the wall?
As we parked our car in the prison lot I wondered what was going to be in store for us.
Ticket holders were asked to arrive 30 minutes early, which we did. We hung out in what used to be a family visitation area. It was one of the hottest days of the summer. I can’t tell you how hot it was in there. There were fans, but no AC.
FYI, and I only mention this because I know people want to know this stuff, there were porta-potties set up in a courtyard outside our waiting area. We were told there was an option for a pit stop halfway through our 90-minute tour. (The water here, apparently, is not potable and there were signs indicating as such.)
We signed waivers, signed waivers for our children, and waited. Did I mention that we were waiting in an old waiting area? God. It was depressing. Gangsta Mickey and Minny, plus creepy jester guy? (“I’M JUGGLING YOUR LIVES, KIDDIES. BWA HA HA!”) Nightmare City.
Sidebar: This tour should be required for all Canadian children between the ages of 10 and 18. Honestly, the thought of ending up in a place like this would scare the crap out of anyone and crime rates would surely plummet.
Soon enough, it was time for our tour to begin.
There was one main guide and several stops along the way where other guides were stationed. The first guide we met was a former warden. I didn’t catch her name, but I would have loved to hear more about what her job was like. The other guides were all former guards and each one offered all kinds of great insight into life at Kingston Pen.
KP has an utterly fascinating history. There are so many compelling aspects and they encompass so many subjects: Canadian history, architectural history, social history, the history of crime and punishment (which was a lot more about punishment – even torture – and less about rehabilitation). If you’re interested in this kind of thing, check out this archived article about KP’s closure on the Globe and Mail website. Don’t miss the timeline near the end too.
Anyway, back to our tour. It was made clear at the outset that this tour was intended to be a historical overview, not a celebrity prison tour. Out of respect for families and victims, at no point would guides be showcasing the cells of Kingston’s infamous prisoners. I was very happy to hear they were being sensitive in this way.
We covered a lot of ground in our 90-minute tour, both in terms of distance (it’s estimated to be a 1KM walk) and in terms of the history of the building. There is SO much to see and learn. I can’t possibly do it justice in one blog post either. I feel like we saw so much, yet I know that we only saw a fraction of this immense institution.
I was AGOG the entire time we were there. Honestly. I had so many questions, and as I type this I am remembering how sad it all was. These buildings are haunted by so much history, which is magnified by the sheer scale of it all. On the other side of that huge wall, it’s immense. You can imagine HOW BIG the buildings are. How tall the buildings are. How they loom, and make us feel so very small:
An inmate would be shot for walking down this road, so close to the main wall:
How many thousands of people lived here, cried here, died here? There was a small city operating on that side of the wall, whose buildings are bigger than you can imagine yet some spaces within them are shockingly small and deeply uncomfortable. I’m referring, of course, to the cells.
One of the highlights of the tour, for me, was the shop wing. This is where inmates were put to work. Initially, it contained shops for blacksmithing, carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and a rope shop. Later they added a school.
The guide stationed at this part of the tour mentioned the inmates sewed canvas mail bags for Canada Posts at one point. The whole issue of work and industry in the prison system is interesting. The original inmates at KP did nothing and had to live in complete silence in order to contemplate their crimes. Later it was deemed that meaningful work was healthy. In fact, Kingston Pen was built by the inmates from stone mined locally. This is essentially why KP was built where it was: local materials and cheap labour.
Of course, we heard stories of daring escapes, riots, loss of life. For the first 99 years, women were incarcerated here too. So were children, in KP’s early days.
Kingston Pen has largely been cleaned out, but traces remain. Real people lived here. Real families were torn apart. Hopefully, some were sewn back together, like so many canvas bags and coils of rope in the shop wing.
I bet a number of you are wondering if this tour is kid-friendly. I think it is, but given the mature and possibly nightmare-inducing themes at play here (er, punishment, crime, death) you’d have to evaluate the merits of a visit based on your own experience with your children. (In other words, you know your own kids, I don’t.) There is graffiti here and there, but nothing that a school-aged kid hasn’t already seen on a bathroom wall.
Would I go again? YES. And I would love to see more, and learn more, about this aspect of Canadian history.
If you are looking for more info about the tour, check out the official website: www.kingstonpentour.com.
Share the post "A peek inside Kingston Penitentiary"