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Kingston Penitentiary to allow visitors to tour infamous prison

Exterior view of Kingston pen.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Members of the public will soon have a rare and limited chance to go inside the country's most notorious but soon to be closed prison, the first such opportunity in ages.

For three weeks starting Oct. 2, visitors will be able to tour Kingston Penitentiary, the formidable maximum security facility that has housed Canada's worst criminals.

The tours, guided by Correctional Service Canada volunteers, are a fundraiser for the United Way in Kingston, Ont.

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Bhavana Varma, president of the local United Way branch, calls it an "exciting" opportunity.

"Many of us have lived here and been curious about and intrigued by the historic institution," Ms. Varma said Friday.

"This is our chance to allow some of our residents to go in behind the scenes."

There will, however, be no chance to glimpse the likes of schoolgirl killer Paul Bernardo or Russell Williams, the disgraced air force colonel who murdered two women.

The last of the inmates will have been moved out before the tours start and the 130-year-old institution will be permanently shuttered as a penitentiary Sept. 30.

In its early years, however, the "custodial circus" was open to visitors, according to J.A. Edmison in his The History of Kingston Penitentiary.

For the sum of one shilling and three pence each, roughly $6 in current prices, men were allowed to go inside. Women and children were admitted for the bargain price of 7 1/2 pence each.

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The new 90-minute, daytime tours that run Wednesday through Sunday will cost $20 per person. Children under 12 do not have to pay. Tickets can only be bought online and proceeds will go to the charity.

Each group will be limited to 25 people and the expectation is to do three tours an hour, Ms. Varma said. "We think the tickets will go pretty quickly," she said.

The Kingston Penitentiary officially opened June 1, 1835, and was one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the world. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990 but its post-prison future remains uncertain.

The federal government announced its closing last year as one of three penitentiaries to be shut down, saying the aged facility was no longer suitable or cost-effective for housing. Citing unspecified privacy concerns, Correctional Service Canada refused to say when the last of its inmates would be moved to other Canadian prisons.

Tickets for the tour can be purchased at

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