While growing up, most of us had heard of the Kingston Penitentiary, but I had only ever known one person who went there. It was in my first year of high school, when a senior at the school, one Wayne Ford, was led away in handcuffs for the murder of his mother.
Last week, while visiting Kingston, I decided a tour of the ‘Pen’ would be worthwhile. It closed in 2013, and is now a museum with many daily tours. Parking was free, and a short walk took me to the front gate. I immediately felt a wave of fear come over me. I’m not sure what it is about prisons, but after watching Midnight Express, I have always had an apprehension about being near them.
The tour, which lasted two hours, was quite interesting. A guide takes you to various places within the walls. Former Corrections Officers are located at these spots, and give fascinating discussions about events or general life within the walls of the prison.
The stories have very ominous overtones, and become extremely surreal, because you are standing in the places where events took place. The cells were remarkably small, only about five feet wide, however when the institution was built, in 1834, the individual cells were only 26 inches in width. Renovations over the years saw the widening of the chambers, but still quite uncomfortable, and I guess they should be.
The youngest inmate the Kingston Pen has seen, was an eight year old boy, convicted of pickpocketing, and such infamous guests as Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson and Grace Marks (Alias Grace) have served parts of their sentences within the walls.
There have been 26 escape attempts in the 177 year history of the Penitentiary, but only one was successful. In 1999, Ty Conn escaped, using ingenious methods and eluded police for two weeks. He accidentally shot himself during a CBC telephone interview and died, a free man.
In the nineties, the entire prison process began to change, and emphasis was put on rehabilitation. Prisoners were rewarded for good behavior and many different trades were taught, as well as the enforcement of mandatory completion of grade 12.
Now a museum, open to the public, the Kingston Penitentiary holds a wealth of information and a visit is very informative. I will admit, I breathed a sigh of relief, once I was outside the walls again.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.