Alcatraz North: Kingston Penitentiary
Kingston Penitentiary is the most notorious federal prison in Canada, holding criminals such as killer pedophile Clifford Olson and serial rapist and murderer Paul Bernardo. It can house up to 564 inmates, each in their own cell. Its population fluctuates between 350 and 500, with another 120 at the Regional Treatment Centre contained within the prison.
Local boating aficionados are not the least bit bothered by the prison's proximity to the marina. They joke there are tours every hour, on the hour. A guard confirms that if anyone tries to take one, they might not get out. However, there is a museum right across the street, with the rather cumbersome name of Correctional Services of Canada Museum. Being bureaucrats, they never thought of jazzing it up with the name it's usually referred to: Alcatraz North.
Kingston Penitentiary is an elegant example of Victorian architecture, circa 1835, set amongst the historic sites of Kingston such as those of Portsmouth Village. In fact, KP, as it's known locally, was declared a national historic monument in 1997.
Seeing the watchtowers of "KP" and its barbed-wire fence juxtaposed against nearby parked boats from the marina, scattered on the grass along with weeds and bushes, seems odd. If ever a convict manages to scale those 20-foot walls, he'll be able to zoom away in a watercraft with little to no trouble. Of course, the walls are a bit of a deterrent. There's even an unexplained, rusting swing set frame with no swings left on it, rising against the watchtower in the background.
Our own, not-so-private Alcatraz didn't start out as notorious. At the outset, Kingston Pen was supposed to be innovative by being more humanitarian than most others. The emphasis was on rehabilitation. From 1952 to 1956, inmates had their own half-hour radio show, which aired Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. They even won an honourable mention in 1952, a few months after their debut. However, the museum seems to belie this vocation, with its various medieval-looking torture devices for inmates, including a 19th-century version of a waterboarding machine, with two barrels of different sizes. It also has something called, ominously, "the box", in which inmates could be held several hours. It's shaped like a coffin. The museum also has a body-lashing strap-down bed. Fun stuff. Corporal punishment was eventually outlawed even here in Canada. The last prisoner to get paddled was in Manitoba in 1969.
The end of corporal punishment did not, however, end prisoner distress. The most memorable riot in Kingston's history broke out on April 14, 1971. It lasted four days and resulted in the death of two inmates and destruction of much of the prison. During the 70s in general there was much violent unrest, with a total of 69 major incidents occurring in a single year, from 1975 to 1976, across all Canadian federal prisons. Of these, 35 were hostage takings involving 92 staff members. In contrast, 65 incidents were reported in the 42 years prior to 1975. Security was substantially increased and prison reforms were instituted during this time.
There have also been celebrated escapes from Kingston Pen. In 1999, Ty Conn escaped from within the prison; although this feat had been accomplished on at least 26 occasions, beginning in 1836, Conn was the first to have succeeded since 1958. He eventually shot himself. However, his bit of derring-do was textbook, as evinced by this Toronto Star description in an article dated May 2, 1999: "Conn welded extensions to a hand-made ladder and used a grappling clamp, which he had constructed where he worked patching mailbags in the prison shop, to scale the 10 metre-tall perimeter fence. To disrupt the scent of the bloodhounds, he carried with him a manila envelope filled with cayenne pepper, which he sprinkled behind him as he fled." He also constructed a dummy out of paper-stuffed clothing to fool the guards during head counts. To build his ladder, Conn hid in the shop after all the other inmates had gone back to their cells. He "waited until the southeast tower guard went off duty at 11 p.m., broke through a screen door in the loading bay and bolted across the yard to the fence. Because of his dummy ploy, his escape wasn't discovered until the next morning." I wonder if he got the idea from watching a ton of movies about prison breaks. However, the real question is whether the Pen'll be fooled again.