Fond Memories of Kingston Penitentiary

The federal government recently announced the closing of Kingston Penitentiary, one of a number of prisons in the Kingston, Ontario area and likely Canada’s best known maximum security penitentiary. 

The news brought back memories of my one and only visit to that institution.  It took place about 20 years ago, but I will never forget some of its features. 

At that time, we were retained by the Ministry of Correctional Services to act in the defence of an action brought by an inmate at the penitentiary who was complaining of a variety of human rights violations. 

I went to Kingston for the examination for discovery of one of the assistant wardens.  When I met with him to prepare, he offered me a tour of the facility and a viewing of a prison cell similar to the one occupied by the Plaintiff, so that I could better understand his complaints. 

Kingston Penitentiary was an incredibly forbidding place.  While it was classified as a maximum security facility, it had a number of inmates who were not necessarily considered to be deserving of maximum security arrangements.  They were there, however, because it was considered to be the best place to house inmates who required protection from the rest of the prison population.  

The cell shown to me did not seem particularly unusual for anyone who has seen a few prison movies.  It certainly did not look like a pleasant place to spend any time, but the truly memorable part of my visit had to do with a different area of the facility.

After I viewed the typical inmate’s cell, I was shown the solitary confinement area.  That is the part of this visit that I will never forget. 

The inmates in solitary confinement generally fit into two categories.  Some were there for disciplinary reasons, on a temporary basis.  Others were there permanently.  At the time that I visited, this latter group included the infamous mass murderer, Clifford Olson.  At that time, Paul Bernardo had not yet arrived. 

One entered the solitary confinement through thick double doors and immediately found oneself at one end of a long hallway.  One side of the hallway consisted of a stone wall extending down to a door at the far end of the hallway, perhaps 100 feet away.  The other side of the hallway was occupied by the cells.

Each cell had a door consisting of metal bars as well as a wooden door perhaps six inches thick.  The wooden door was totally solid and generally remained open.  It was closed when an inmate required disciplinary action. 

Inside the cell was a metal single bed with a thin mattress, and a combination sink/toilet.  No other furniture whatsoever existed in the cell.  The ceiling in each cell was perhaps 20 feet high.  At the very top of one wall in the cell, one could see a tiny window.  The amount of light entering through that window was negligible. 

Every inmate was given the option of having the light in the cell on 24 hours per day, or off 24 hours per day.  When I was there, almost every cell was dark. 

The inmates were required to remain silent all the time.  Any attempt by an inmate to communicate with another inmate resulted in disciplinary measures.  I did not hear a sound during my entire visit to this area.

The door at the other end of the hall opened up into a courtyard.  The ground in the courtyard consisted of gravel.  The walls were concrete topped by barbed wire, approximately 20 feet high.  The courtyard itself was roughly square, as I recall, with about 30 feet on each dimension.  There was absolutely nothing in the courtyard.

Each inmate spent 23 out of 24 hours per day in this cell.  The other hour was spent in the courtyard.  At no time was more than one inmate in the courtyard at a time. 

I remember thinking that arrangements ought to be made to have groups of high school students tour the facility, and particularly the solitary confinement area, from time to time.  I had no doubt at the time, and I have no doubt today, that such a program would have a significant and positive effect on the students.  I cannot imagine that anyone visiting such a facility would not think twice before doing something that might result in being incarcerated there. 

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