The following is a letter to the editor regarding the new multi-year lease of Kingston Penitentiary. The views and opinions expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
Since 1835, Kingston Penitentiary (KP) has generated economic and regional growth. Even as KP ceased its social control functions after 178 years of imprisonment, the federal penitentiary system, politicians, entrepreneurs, and the non-profit sector have found new ways to capitalize on the site’s notoriety and location.
Today, stakeholders from Correctional Service Canada (CSC), United Way, City of Kingston, St. Lawrence Parks Commission, Queen’s University, and other entities have been involved in transforming KP into a cultural attraction. Tours, film shoots, and events like a rock concert have been held at the site, generating millions of dollars for the city’s tourism and charity sectors.
With some stakeholders benefiting from the cultural cachet of KP, demands continue to be put forward for capitalizing on the site. Yet, there have been few moments of earnest reflection by KP’s current beneficiaries concerning the ethics of prison tourism, the integrity of charitable fundraising that relies on stigmatizing depictions of prisoners, or the significance of redeveloping a site where many prisoners and penitentiary staff have been injured and even killed.
It’s peculiar that now – months after being criticized for being involved in a charitable concert and one-sided, former staff-led tours of KP – CSC and the City of Kingston rushed ahead in the direction of more tourism and commodification at the site. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, it was reported that CSC was formalizing a multi-year agreement behind closed doors. Previously the contracts were negotiated on a year-to-year basis. On Wednesday, Mar. 4, 2020, it was reported that the City of Kingston will pay $1 million per year to lease KP from CSC, up from the $1 per year it paid previously. This agreement secures use of the facility for eight years and allows up to 110 days per year of for-profit activities, including using it as a film site. City council agreed to the revised lease terms at its Tuesday, Mar. 3, 2020 meeting. This came after Chief Administrative Officer Lanie Hurdle stated, “It is also important to mention that although the number of visitors for public tours may reduce slightly in future years, additional activities would be introduced in order to stabilize net profits.”
Important concerns raised by heritage groups, researchers, former prisoners, local groups, and advocates about the future and use of KP remain. Will the City of Kingston meaningfully address the concerns voiced over the last several months about KP being used to foster voyeurism, rather than memorialized in ways that acknowledge its complex and troubling history?
The rationale of “it’s all for a good cause,” money for charity, has been used to justify the transformation of KP into a prison tourism destination and deflect criticism about the voices of people previously imprisoned at KP being pushed to the margins. In an interview with Wei Chan in September 2019, United Way CEO Bhavana Varma stated, “I think it is important to have a dialogue, because that [i.e. dishonouring the people who have suffered at KP] is certainly not our intention, nor has it ever been to disrespect or minimize the dark history and the complexity of suffering.” Now outside of the glare of media attention, the United Way has steered clear of the discussion.
Referencing a meeting held with a few members from the P4W Memorial Collective and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons editorial board during an interview on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, Scott Harris – CSC’s Ontario Regional Deputy Commissioner – stated, “I’ve met with some of those individuals that raised concerns, particularly around the concert, and have subsequently raised issues around the tours… We will continue to engage with those groups and do our best to find a balance in terms of hearing those voices as well as hearing the other interests of the community, which, as you know, is very strong.” The meeting he referred to, which took place in October 2019, ended with the promise of further dialogue. Yet, there was no further dialogue as our subsequent emails went unanswered. The “other interests” (i.e., those benefiting from KP) in the community were “very strong” indeed as CSC rushed ahead to lease the property.
While the $1 million a year contract has been signed, the commercial repurposing of the site should be up for debate. KP remains public infrastructure and the public should be meaningfully involved in shaping what transpires there. This process should take place out in the open, not in the offices and boardrooms of those who benefit materially and symbolically from current arrangements. This lack of transparency has been a staple of penitentiary administration in Canada since even before confederation. With the City now assuming more control over KP, it should break with the institution’s opaque past and meaningfully involve the public in reimagining its future.
– Linda Mussell, Justin Piché, and Kevin Walby