In the Big House: A Tour Through Kingston Penitentiary

By Bill Gowsell

Footprints on the floor mark the places prisoners would line up to be counted inside Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

Very rarely will people pay money to go to prison, but that’s what my Dad and I did recently at Kingston Penitentiary. Well, my stepmother paid for us to go as a birthday present for my father. I got a free ride to the slammer. We chose the two and half hour extended tour with a small fifteen-member group which expands on the regular tour to places not seen by every visitor at the Kingston Pen tours. Dad and I were in for a lot of walking.

Assembling in the visiting area just inside the main gate on King Street, we met our guide Steve, and started our journey behind the bars. From open areas where prisoners on good behaviour would meet with their families, to closed area visiting with glass dividers and phones to talk through, we were quickly immersed into inmate life. The remnants of the kids’ corner where young children would play with toys when they came to visit their parent had the most to say in this quiet, empty area. This was a room where kids played, and families were reunited for short brief moments in time.

From monitored rooms with bars, to the back of the main gate at the prison we went, where Pat, a former correctional officer at Kingston Pen told us the story about a guard named Kennedy who was killed at the front gate in 1948. Pat, standing in the shadow of the massive gate relayed information about the early years of the prison, how guards were originally hired and told to live within earshot of the bell at the top of the wall, to the death of John Kennedy in 1948.

Kennedy was born, raised, worked, and died at the prison in a violent escape in 1948. Pat talked about the details behind the escape and told us some stories from his own time at the prison. The stone walls kept out the sound of King Street and the cars. The main gate receded behind us as we walked further into the prison following the path of guards and prisoners from years gone by.

Under the dome – the view from inside under the main dome of Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

Our next stop, the Main Dome, was the location of most events in the 1971 prison riot. Met by another former correctional officer named Rick, we learned about the events from the riot that saw death and countless injuries. Rick pointed out where the kangaroo courts of the isolation prisoners were held. In the dome where we stood and listened is where hundreds of prisoners trashed and smashed their surroundings for several days in 1971.

From the Main Dome into Lower G Range, we followed Steve and were introduced to yet another former corrections officer, named Scott, and while he told us about the complexity of prisoners’ lives inside their cells, we turned and stared at the homes built into those walls. We walked into the holes in the wall and saw the small effects that each prisoner could have. The graffiti and messages of the past occupants were still evident in many places. As we looked around at Lower G Range, it felt like one of the prison occupants in his blue jeans and blue golf shirt could come walking by at any moment.

A look at Cell Range G inside Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.
A glimpse inside a cell on Lower G Range in Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

Lower G was confined with small rooms, while the isolation area, which was completed in 2002, contained cells with more room, steel covered doors, and with windows that could be opened for ventilation. Here amongst the closed-off separate rooms, another former corrections officer named Pat explained that stays in isolation would last between five to 10 and even 15 days at the most. When I asked about difficulty with prisoners in isolation, Pat said that the real problems would happen when prisoners would have to go back to their regular cells. Isolation was the busiest part of the prison with correctional officers almost waiting on the prisoner’s hand and foot. Prisoners didn’t move without correctional officers escorting them in isolation.

An isolation cell inside Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

In the shop dome we met Ted, another former corrections officer, who told us about the jobs inmates would have in these shops. Inmates would make mail bags for Canada Post and other items for not for profit organizations. While Ted told us about the intricacies of the different shops as we touring through the different rooms in the two-level building, our guide Steve detailed how an inmate named Ty Conn plotted his escape from Kingston Pen in 1999.

While we followed in the footsteps of Ty Conn, Steve told us how Conn plotted his escape, and how he was able to construct a massive ladder to climb over the wall to freedom. Steve was great at providing insight into how Conn could escape from Kingston Pen. From having the help of fellow inmates who rearranging his cell so it looked like Conn was still around, to playing tricks on the shop instructors, Conn was able to mastermind the first escape from the Pen in over fifty years.

The view inside the shop dome, where prisoners worked, within Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

To the exercise yard we travelled, where razor wire and high walls marked off where hundred of inmates would socialize in the open air. Even though I was standing in an area where thousands had walked in the past, and with Kingston and Lake Ontario only a few hundred feet on either side, I couldn’t help but think I was in a whole other world. A world that was devoid of family contact, regular rules, and society. The sounds of silence as I walked on the exercise yard would have been different had there been hundreds of prisoners, but I could imagine how they would have felt isolated from the world.

At the Regional Treatment Centre, we met Doug, a former employee. Originally a prison within the prison for all the bad inmates, the treatment centre was repurposed as a psychiatric hospital to serve all prisons in Ontario. Here, this specified group of inmates would live as they worked through their mental health issues while serving their sentences. The regular inmate population never mixed with those at the Regional Treatment Centre. From an exercise gym, to cell ranges, the treatment centre was yet again another world within this incarcerated life.

The now empty exercise yard inside Kingston Penitentiary where hundreds of prisoners would socialize, exercise, and get fresh air when the Pen was operating.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

From the hospital where minor surgeries and X-rays would be conducted, to the gym where games and events would be organized for the inmates, my father and I walked through a world that I will never fully appreciate, and I am glad to never live that life.

Kingston Penitentiary tours are something that everyone in Kingston should do at least once. This massive stone fortress that has dominated King Street for two centuries, has a wealth of history and stories to be told about the people who lived and worked behind those massive stone walls.

A lone school book left behind still sits on a window ledge inside Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo by Bill Gowsell.

Everyone needs to take this tour, because these tours not only allow you the chance to walk the path of inmates past, but also meet former correctional workers who will make any tour fly by in no time.

For more information on the Kingston Pen tours, or to book your tickets, go to Fifty per cent of proceeds from the tours go to the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington to support local youth homelessness initiatives.

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