Kingston Penitentiary: A Tour Through the Ages

Kingston Penitentiary

Old architecture and interesting history has always fascinated me. Kingston is filled with both. Working in Kingston a few years ago, a coworker and I went and checked out the museum at the Wardens House of Kingston Penitentiary. It was so interesting and showed a part of prison life from the 1800’s to the present. At that time the prison was still a functioning prision that you could see from the lawn of Warden’s House Museum. With wonder and curiosity as I looked at this massive building across the street and all the stories it could tell. When it opened for tours, it became a attraction on my to do list.

The large imposing building as you walk in leaves you no doubt that as an inmate it was going to be a rough ride. A wonderful guide named Clare met us as we walked through the gates. She would take us on an interesting walk through history at Canada’s first Federal Penitentiary. Tales of riots and escapes, murders and solitude, she would take us through the ages.

Opened in 1835 the prison was stragically located on the water for supply and inmate delivery. As horse and carts were used in those days, more supplies could be shipped by boat. Kingston Penitentiary held both men and woman for its first 99 years of existence. At one time even imprisoning children as young as 8 for such minor offenses as pickpocketing. I could not imagine being an adult never mind a child and hearing those giant gates close behind you! To recieve time in Kingston Penitentiary you had to be sentenced to over 2 years. Over the years this institution has held some of the worst criminals in Canadian history. In one case an innocent man.

Steven Truscott was also held here. I remember hearing of his story growing up. As a 14 year old boy Steven Truscott was arrested and charged with rape and murder of 12 year old Lynn Harper. He was convicted and sentenced to hang in 1959. Later his sentence would be commuted to life in prison. Steven always protested his innocence. In 1969 he was granted parole. In 2007 a judge ruled that a miscarriage of justice had been done. The evidence that was presented was circumstantial and the conviction was overturned. Can you imagine being locked away for 10 years in one of those cells knowing that you did nothing wrong? Then for the next 38 years people believing you were a murderer. It is reported that Steven recieved a settlement from the goverment. Thank goodness the death penalty was commuted to life in prison. I hope he has found happiness.

Entering the courtyard

When Kingston Penitentiary opened in 1835 there was a total of 6 prisoners and by chance 1/2 of them were named John. Lol! I kind of thought that was funny. The prison population would grow to a maximum of 564 prisoners by its closure in 2013.

As you walked out into the courtyard you are met with stone buildings and large fences with rolling barbed wire. Surrounding the courtyard were the towering walls of stone.

The thick stone walls surrounding the premises with barbed wire fencing was a certain deterent for escape. The guard towers on every corner along with the guard towers in side the courtyard guaranteed that they meant business.

Guard Tower

Apparently not a deterent for all. There were 26 prison escape attempts. It seemed incredible to me as I looked around how anyone could scale a wall that size. Grapling hooks were made and used to scale the walls. Of the 26 attempt only 1 was successful but resulted with him taking his own life when finally caught.

Grappling Hook
The Last Esacape

One story Clare told was of two men who succeeded in creating a grappling hook but could not get rope. Instead they used rubber. They used a second floor opening and slung the grappling hook towards the wall. It caught and held. Securing the other end to a large metal post the men climbed out on to the rubber, as they did it began to stretch and sag, litterly suspending them many feet above the ground. They had to call the guards for help. Well that did not go as planned.

An escape attempt that did not end as well. The story of John Kennedy was both tragic and intriguing. In 1948 John was a guard and messenger at the Penitentiary just like his father before him. In fact he was actually born in the old West gatehouse apartments within the walls of the Penitentiary. Unfortunately his life would end there also.

Unbeknown to John he would play a deadly role in an escape plan hatched by two convicts, Austin Craft and Howard Urquhart. Driving towards the north gate he spotted Craft walking across the courtyard taking the garbage to the gate to be disposed of. Having met the inmate before he offered him a lift. When they got to the North gate Urquhart stepped out of the trunk where he was hidden while Craft held John at gunpoint demanding the keys to open the gate. When John did not comply he was shot and killed. The prisoners did escape but only for a short time before they were caught. For the murder of John, Craft recieved the death penalty. His hanging in 1949 was the last in Kingston.

Walking through the courtyard entering the first building, we entered the area where it all started. These old cells were used until 1895. Measuring 6 feet 7 inches tall, 8 feet deep and only 2.5 feet wide there was not much room in these tiny spaces. In the early years the inmates would only be let out to work on the local farms and limestone quarry in a work gang for 8 hours a day. The rest of the time they spent in their cells. I also have to mention that it was a hot day. There was no air movement within those thick stone walls. As I stood and looked in, the sweat dripping from my forehead, I could not imagine living like that for 16 hours a day.

Living space for 16 hours a day

Ohhh do not close the door! Lol!

Keeping the door open.

A small cover would be put up for some privacy but could be ordered removed by the guard at anytime. As a retired guard explained these people were some of the most dangerous people in Canada, they had nothing to lose.

A cell drape for added privacy

There were two levels of cells. It was daunting standing in the hallway and looking along the rows of cells. You almost felt you were in an old prison movie, but this was all to real.

Within the cells inmates had drawn pictures on the walls. Some of those pictures were still there.

Prisoners wall drawings

In the early days solitary confinement was litterly a hole in the ground. You could be sent there for any number of reasons including talking, winking or giggling. Corporal punishment was also used as a deterent to bad behaviour. It must have been brutal in those days with lashes used to whip your back or locking you in “the box”. A coffin sized box that could be locked for days on end. It is interesting to note that corporate punishment was used until 1969 when the criminal code was amended.

From the old cells to the dome. An impressive building with four stories of cells. Up above a large glass dome. This was “The dome”. The center where at breakfast, lunch and dinner a bell would be rung. When the prisoners had to go back into their cells the bell was rung. Clare told us the prisoners grew to hate that bell and was one of the first things destroyed in the 1954 Riots.

The Dome
1954 Riot

The bell was replaced with a guard house. Here doors could be controlled, weapons stored and a tunnel leading to a larger armory if needed. We were told the guards never carried guns throughout the prison. It would be too easy to be over powered thus giving convicted fellons weapons.


There were three riots in Kingston Penitentiary, 1932, 1954, 1971. The 1954 riot caused over 2 million in damaged.

As the number of inmates grew so did the facility

As the old cells began to be used for short term uses, other wings and buildings were built. The cells were slightly larger but still a little space. I think I have more room in my Roadtrek. Lol. Cells were built for specific applications such as suicide watch. Equipped with cameras these inmates would be monitored 24 hours a day.

Suicide watch

As we wove through the buildings it was like a maze. Each hallway with a large barred door to keep everyone separated. We asked where they ate, was there a large cafeteria or area that they all sat at like in the movies? In 1840 as the inmates out numbered the guards 10 to 1. They found it was to hard to keep control of the them, so in cell meals were started and continued until closing.

When the prison opened, with the idea to properly rehabiltate the prisoners back into society required hard work, the work gangs and reflection, the isolation. As Kingston grew there were less farms for work crews, manufacturing was introduced inside the prison. A lot of the Penitentiary itself was built by prisoners. The prisoners were also contracted to do such work as cabinet making, shoe manufacturing, as well other trades. In 1849 it seemed to be the perfect solution. The manufacturers got cheap labour, the prisoners were kept hard at work and the Penitentiary made money. The problem…the other manufacturers getting their work done on the “outside” could not compete on the open market. In 1880 the practice was banned and only manufacturing for the goverment use was allowed. Introducing the production and repair of mail carrier bags in 1882 until 2009. I found that really interesting because I worked for Canada Post and within my time there I may have handed a few mailbags out that now I know were made in the same room I was now standing in. The ceilings in this room were incredibly beautiful. It was a huge room where millions of mailbag were made.

A quick note. Inmates from a nearby prison are still used today to tend to the grounds.

Manufacturing room
Manufacturing mail bags 1949

Back into the courtyard as we wove our way through the buildings Clare told us of the most expensive toilet in Canada. In this building was where if they thought you were carrying contraband in you know where, you would have to go to this building. Inside you would have to go three times into this special toilet. After you have gone the toilet separates the liquid with centrifugal force and some lucky guard would have to go through it making sure nothing was coming into the prison. I can bet that was the short straw job for the day. Lol. Eww!

No one wants to go here.

As you walked the hallways of the cells knowing such criminals as Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olsen had stayed in, it kind of gave me a shiver. We were told that there were some stories of ghosts that walked the halls. This particular hallway we were told ghosts had been reported seen and heard. Apparitions would appear and disappear at will. Do you think murders are scared of ghosts? After all the worst people in Canada were held within these cells. The thought they would be kind of gave me a giggle. Now it was them that could not sleep at night!

Do you see a ghost???

Walking into the hospital wing, as you walked there would be a different sound as you walked in a spot. A hollow sound. We were told that just under the floor was the morgue. Now I would have thought that’s where the ghosts would have hung out. I guess the trauma of what happened in those cells was worse than actually dieing is what was keeping those souls here.

All through the prison you could see messages written on the walls by the inmates. Some a warning and some an affirmation.

Messages from inmate to inmate

There was a cantene for snacks as well as hygiene products. You could spend the money you would earn working in the prison making mailbags for instance. Lol.

Visitors were always encouraged at Kingston Penitentiary. Having loved ones and friends come and support the inmates was an important part of the rehabilation process. There are three ways to visit people in the jail. For more aggressive inmates and those that were poorly behaved booths with thick glass and Iron doors were set up and you spoke to them over the phone.

Visitation cells

There was also a room filled with tables where family could visit. As I walked out of that room there was a notice on the wall as a reminder for inmates to not interact with others children unless given permission from the parents. Overnight visits are also allowed. There are a row of apartments that you could stay in with the inmates up to three days. Inmates could apply for these visits every two months.

Conjugal visits apartment

This tour was everything I expected and a little more. I would like to thank our Tour Guide Clare for doing an excellent job of taking us on an adventure of the oldest Penitentiary in Canada!

If you are ever in Kingston do yourself a favor and take a tour. You will be as intrigued as I was.

Thanks for coming along on my Chipmunk Adventure. See you next time!

3 thoughts on “Kingston Penitentiary: A Tour Through the Ages

  1. Interesting but many spelling and grammatical errors. Suggest you review again since itโ€™s on line. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Being a little dyslexic I thought this was your best written story since I started reading you! It really showed you enjoyed the tour! The story was so descriptive, I thought you did a great job โ€ฆ2 enthusiastic thumbs up!

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