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Kingston Penitentiary: Canada’s most famous prison closes its doors Add to ...

Last week, a retired prison guard volunteering at the Penitentiary Museum across the road from the Kingston Penitentiary, looked out the window at his old workplace. “Today they’re moving the patients out of the hospital,” he muttered … to no one at all. He seemed sad. The hospital had cared for approximately 130 mentally ill prisoners on the penitentiary site, and now was sending their patients to units at nearby Millhaven, a maximum-security prison, and to Bath, a medium-security prison.

Many other people in Kingston are sad to see the penitentiary close. They understand it’s old – after all, the first building opened in 1835 – but they love it. So many of them have worked there or volunteered there. It’s been a lab and training school for students from Queen’s University in law, psychology, medicine, and education. Professors often held classes in the penitentiary for inmates; one was the distinguished artist André Biéler who ran a course he called “Escape Through Art.”

Kingston Penitentiary is the most famous prison in Canada, and not just because of the notorious prisoners who have done their time there – men such as the late murderers Helmuth Buxbaum and Clifford Olson, as well as Paul Bernardo (now moved to Millhaven), Mohammad and Hamed Shafia (presumed to have been moved to Millhaven) and Russell Williams, who was moved to Port-Cartier prison in Quebec several months ago. Its fame is also due to such writers as Charles Dickens, who toured the place in 1842 and called it “an admirable gaol.”

Much of the prison’s reputation comes from the important role its early inmates played in building the city. They laboured in a massive limestone quarry just north of the charming village of Portsmouth – which lies just west of the prison and was home to many of the guards – to break the stone for many of the city’s finest buildings. Today, that quarry, made famous by writer Merilyn Simonds in her novel, The Convict Lover, is covered by the green grass of Richardson Stadium on the Queen’s University campus.

Inside the prison, other men worked in various trades; they learned to make furniture, for example, and when Sir John A. Macdonald died in June, 1891, his coffin rested on a large wooden table in Kingston City Hall, a table made in the prison’s furniture shop.

Kingstonians have a great fondness for KP, which was designated a National Historic Site on Feb. 23, 1990. Other cities envy the prosperity it has brought the city; over the years, eight other prisons were built in the Kingston area, providing a formidable local economy bolstered by a large military base, Queen’s University, St. Lawrence College and three fine hospitals.

What worries many people now is what will happen to the penitentiary after it shuts Monday. The biggest fear? That it will be torn down, despite its designated status, and turned into a subdivision.

But if politicians needed any proof of how much Kingstonians love KP, they need only look at the results on the online sale of tickets to tour it in mid-October, in a fundraiser for the United Way.

“We sold close to 9,200 tickets and raised about $158,000,” said Bhavana Varma, the organization’s president and CEO. “All the tickets were gone within minutes.”

And what of the inmates who have moved out of KP? Up to a week ago there were at least 400 men there. All have gone. Most have been taken to Millhaven, a half-hour’s drive to the west.

“The whole routine here is a shambles,” said one prisoner who has moved from Kingston Penitentiary to Millhaven. “They’re trying to combine two fully functional systems into one coherent organism.”

But, he added, what he likes about Millhaven is that he can hear the sound of a train. “And I can report seeing a dragonfly, a damsel fly, five house swallows, two turkey buzzards, four hawks and a wild hen turkey.”


June 1, 1835: Kingston Penitentiary opens as the provincial penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada with six inmates.

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