Editorial note: The following is a submitted Op/Ed piece. The views and opinons expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.
Kingston is a prison city and has been for almost two centuries, impacting prisoners, carceral officers, their families, and local communities. Yet, still absent in the tours at the now decommissioned Kingston Penitentiary (KP), which all too easily map onto the cultural and economic landscape of the region, are the untold stories of those who were imprisoned there. This remains an issue despite many criticisms levelled against KP tours on this score last year.
There are many similarities between operational prisons and the prison tourist site. With its ranges, cells, and surveillance, prisons are organized around viewing. Prisoners are put on display, classifications and labels are applied, and humans are stored and processed like a mass-manufactured product — as made evident when carceral officer unions and municipal governments applaud expanding prison spaces, touting such measures as a benefit to the economy.
KP as an active prison-turned-tourism site puts spaces on display, and normalizes the classifications and the labels used by the punitive injustice system, but with one crucial difference being that it’s tourists who are processed through the facility. The more tickets sold, the better for Kingston’s economy, we’re told.
In the pursuit of dollars, some extract benefits on the backs of people pushed to the margins who’ve been criminalized and are continually stigmatized by the one-sided tropes of dangerousness and insecurity communicated by the guides, many of whom are former carceral officers. Stories of riots and escape devoid of context cast prisoners in a harsh light, reproducing narratives that undermine their efforts to secure stable housing, employment, and other basic necessities following their release from custody.
Comments shared during KP tours can also be dehumanizing. For example, in reference to one of the protective custody yards, a person taking the tour remarked, “the holding cage over the top, like for primates?” The guide laughed and responded, “Yes, exactly that.” Stories about the struggles faced by people behind bars, along with their families and communities, are rarely told.
The KP tours are full of silences. Depending on the tour, there’s little to no content representing the colonial and racialized nature of imprisonment and punishment, yet the history of imprisonment and punitive injustice in Canada cannot be told without accounting for colonialism and racism. It’s especially an issue in this day and age that the tours and the tour script ignore racism, which operates to normalize the profiling and policing that feeds the prison industry. On one tour we took, a guide claimed that some prisoners probably only used the Indigenous grounds to access tobacco, comments which are belittling of Indigenous ceremony.
KP tours haven’t meaningfully changed in the face of critiques. The City of Kingston, Correctional Service Canada, and the St. Lawrence Parks Commission appear unconcerned with the harm prison tourism can cause, which is also evident with the site opening in the middle of a deadly global pandemic that spreads rapidly in enclosed spaces. On one of the tours we took, a guard tour guide removed his mask on more than one occasion while presenting indoors and in close proximity to others.
KP tours must change. To this end, the Carceral Cultures research initiative released the “Untold Stories on Kingston Penitentiary Tours” handouts series and hosted an online panel by the same name yesterday featuring testimonials produced by people once imprisoned in federal penitentiaries located in the Kingston-area, including KP and the Prison for Women. These interventions not only illuminate the everyday violence prisoners endure and that KP tours largely ignore, but propose different possibilities for the future use of the KP lands and buildings owned by the Government of Canada that are currently a backdrop for entrenching a costly, ineffective, and unjust status quo.
Linda Mussell, Justin Piché, and Kevin Walby are members of the Carceral Cultures Research Initiative.