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Officials had hoped that by shutting down the oldest portion of the jail in 1977 and moving inmates into a more modern, adjoining building, they could dispel its image as a medieval dungeon. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Officials had hoped that by shutting down the oldest portion of the jail in 1977 and moving inmates into a more modern, adjoining building, they could dispel its image as a medieval dungeon. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Landmark

Inside the Don Jail: One of Canada's most harrowing prisons is about to close Add to ...

It was no coincidence that the inspiration behind two-for-one jail credits originated at the Don Jail, a legendary correctional hellhole that predates Confederation.

Judges calculated that a day in the Don was worth at least two in most other prison settings, a ratio that prevailed for two decades until Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tough-on-crime agenda rolled it back.

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Opened in 1864, it was the largest jail in North America at the time. Soon to be closed in favour of a massive new jail, it serves as a remand centre for defendants awaiting trial. A home to everyone from two-bit parole violators to terrorists and serial killers, the officially named Toronto Jail was also the first and last place Canada executed criminals.

Countless prisoners attested to its privations: from its rat-infested cellars and sliver-like cells to the dank gallows, where 34 men went to the hangman as their fearful confreres listened for the audible bang of the trapdoor.

"The Don is infamous," observed Douglas Olver, a senior Ontario correctional official who is writing a history of provincial jails. "No other jail has had anywhere close to the significant events that have taken place there."

Besides the executions, they include 70 murders, daring escapes and the shocking discovery a few years ago of 15 skeletons buried in an exercise yard. An unknown number of inmates have taken their own lives, including one condemned man who did a swan dive from the highest balcony of the rotunda.

Just 18 months remain before its denizens are transferred to the massive new 1,650-inmate facility located a few kilometres away, leaving the "new" Don to be demolished. The old Don will be preserved within a $100-million development by Bridgepoint Health.

In a rare visit to the location - officials were unable to recall the last time a journalist was allowed in - it wasn't hard to sense why the Don's name evokes shivers. Cold as a crypt and cavernously dark, echoes bounce off walls where prisoners once etched warnings and curses or crossed off their days with shaky Xs.

Officials had hoped that by shutting down the oldest portion of the jail in 1977 and moving inmates into a more modern, adjoining building, they could dispel its image as a medieval dungeon. It didn't work. The public and media failed to distinguish between the old and the new Don and, as recently as last month, Ontario Court Judge Melvyn Green noted in a judgment that, "circumstances at the Don Jail remain notorious."

To many officials, however, it is a bad rap.

"There has been an impression that conditions are so poor and individuals suffer so much that that they should get special credit for it," said Steve Small, Ontario's assistant deputy minister of correctional and community services. "You will see a totally different picture than what has been portrayed in the courts and in the media."

An ensuing tour showed that life in the new Don isn't a walk in the park, but bore out Mr. Small's contention when compared to the old Don - and then some.

WHAT IT IS NOW

The first thing that strikes a visitor to the 147-year-old jail is the odour - a none-too-savoury concoction of sweat and bodily waste.

"It's what we call our morning scent," said jail superintendent Rose Buhagiar. "The offenders have an unwritten rule that they don't flush during the night because of the noise."

One morning recently, the jail was 130 inmates over its capacity of 504. Approximately 70 cells were occupied by vulnerable inmates requiring special protection. Other ranges accommodated those with medical problems or special needs.

Violence can break out at any moment over the most trivial matter, Ms. Buhagiar said. "It could be that you spit on the floor," she said. "You took my extra piece of bread. You took too long in the shower. You didn't brush your teeth. It can be anything."

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