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first person

Clifford Olson is led away from court in Regina, Sask., April 4, 1996. During Kirk Makin's 1989 tour of Kingston Penitiary, Olson, a serial child murderer, was one of 31 dangerous convicts held in the prison's notorious E Block.

I couldn't help feeling an extreme rush of excitement the first time Kingston Penitentiary's ancient doors swung open for me, revealing a rabbit warren of cold stone walls and guard stations.

It was late August, 1989. A prison warden had offered me the chance to be the first reporter to experience life on the country's most infamous prison range – E Block.

With its population of 31 reviled convicts – killers, bombers, serial rapists and a long-forgotten airplane hijacker – E Block was the home to the worst of the worst.

A short, guided stroll across an unnaturally bucolic field brought me to the two-storey cellblock. Disembodied voices from unseen prisoners ponged off the walls as two guards recited a list of ground rules to me: Walk around freely. Talk with anyone you wish. Just don't get too close to the bar; killers who have no hope of release are liable to do just about anything.

What followed were the three most surreal hours of my career.

Roaming from one cell to another, I chatted freely with a rogues' gallery – men like Clifford Olson, Saul Betesh and Melvin Stanton, who had reaped headlines by the hundreds and were now cooped up 23 hours a day in their four-by-one-metre cells.

"How the hell did you get in here?" Mr. Olson demanded in astonishment, after I appeared in front of his cage. Like a crazed monkey, he leapt from the floor to his cot and back again with remarkable agility. "I've been trying to get to you guys for years!"

His eyes bugging out, Mr. Olson raged against his captors and shoved documents at me through the bars. On the walls behind him, I could make out photos of children and a sign that said: "Comfort is being with the ones you love."

In another cell, Larry Stanford – a mousy man convicted in 1972 of using a rifle to hijack a Quebecair jet with 52 people aboard – told me that E Block was a haven of safety compared to the cellblocks that housed the general population.

Mr. Olson, it turned out, was the only inmate of E Block willing to try his luck at surviving in the main prison. His fellow block-mates would rather perish on the spot than try to survive in the general population. Indeed, four of the six suicides at Kingston Pen in recent years had taken place in E Block.

Saul Betesh, the principal figure in the 1977 torture and murder of Toronto shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques, spoke to me favourably of E Block. Sporting a filthy T-shirt that smelled rank from a full metre away, he waxed proud of his home away from home.

"Not only do staff consider this block the toilet of the prison, they treat us that way," Mr. Betesh said cheerfully.

The most infamous prison in the country, Kingston Pen has been the stuff of folklore; a deep-freeze so vile that many convicts risked an escape attempt rather than consigning himself to a lifetime spent in its bone-chilling catacombs.

With a populous colony of rats and squirrels and a human population composed almost exclusively of rapists and killers, it was the last place in the prison system any savvy criminal would volunteer to be lodged.

Another vignette illustrating the otherworldliness of life within that medieval fortress comes back to me crystal-clear.

It involved an interview with Guy Paul Morin in 1992. At 25, Mr. Morin had been convicted two months earlier in the sex-slaying of his next-door neighbour, Christine Jessop. The small-town, jack-of-all-trades would eventually be exonerated and freed. But at that point, he faced the rest of his life in KP, where child-killers fare particularly poorly.

After two months of incarceration, Mr. Morin had changed dramatically in attitude and appearance. No longer was he the happy-go-lucky fellow I had known during his trial, certain of eventually being acquitted for a crime he adamantly maintained he had not committed.

In stunning contrast, he had transformed into a visibly frightened captive of a prison culture where respect was earned through dominance and an inadvertent gaze could precipitate a knife attack.

Clad in a prison-issue jumpsuit, Mr. Morin slipped into the visiting room with a haunted look on his face. He confided that he had grown a beard in hopes it would make him appear tough to the rapists and killers who roamed the prison ranges.

Mr. Morin implored me not to tell anyone what he had said. If published, he said, the beard revelation could enlarge the target on his back.

Before leaving, Mr. Morin pleaded for help. He did not think he could survive for long. Kingston Pen, he said, was a scarier place than anyone in the outside world could possibly imagine.

Editor's note: Larry Stanford was convicted of hijacking a Quebecair jet in 1972; incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.