It’s no secret that we all love a good mystery. And this summer, you have the rare and unique opportunity to uncover the mysteries of Canada’s historic legal system at Kingston Penitentiary, the country’s oldest maximum-security prison.
That’s right: Kingston Pen has opened its doors to the public! This correctional facility held some of the most notorious criminals in Canada’s history, but it also played a huge role in the development of our legal system and some of the rehabilitation programs that are still used today.
You HAVE to check this place out! Kingston Pen is only a short drive from Toronto, so Torontonians and visitors to the area should make a point of stopping by. This is an incredible opportunity for you to explore the grounds and learn about crime in Canada, from pre-constitution days to the prison’s closure in 2013. You’ll be in awe as you take in the limestone architecture and soak up the significance of the site.
Whether you’re looking for a new date idea or a fun afternoon out with friends, it’s bound to make a good story either way. Here are just a few of the reasons why Kingston Pen needs to make it onto your bucket list this summer!
1. Explore The Prison’s Rich History
Let’s go WAY back! In 1833, the original walls were built and then the facility was opened on June 1, 1835. At this time, it was known as “The Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Canada,” or the “Provincial Pen” for short. The design of the building was influenced by a similar facility in Auburn, New York, and it was the largest public building in Upper Canada at the time (oh how things have changed!).
Within the walls, it became its own little city. Throughout the decades, Kingston Pen added a dining hall, chapel building, various other wings, a hospital facility and their well-known regional treatment centre.
In 1890, the famous dome was built to connect all the wings and underground tunnel system. With the passing of Confederation seven years later, it was finally renamed the Kingston Penitentiary. The prison was in operation for a whopping 178 years!
2. Hear First-Hand Accounts From Prison-Guards-Turned-Tour-Guides
To add to the authenticity of your experience, former guards of the facility, whose employment periods date back to the 1960s, are part of the tours through Kingston Pen – and sometimes they even lead them!
They’ll explain how prison workers weren’t just focused on crime and punishment. In the ‘50s, there was an extensive entertainment and art program introduced into the jail. On your tour, walk through eight display rooms filled with art, an unparalleled collection of penitentiary-related artifacts and countless photographs.
At your own pace, you’ll also get the chance to explore the muster area, main cell dome, segregation wing, metal shop, recreational yard and more! If you purchase extended tour tickets you’ll also get access to the canvas and upholstery shops, school, regional treatment centre cell range, hospital, main gymnasium and laundry room. Tours last about one-and-a-half hours, or two-and-a-half for the extended tours.
3. Get Educated About The Women Of Kingston Pen
For 99 years, there were many women incarcerated at Kingston Pen. The female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the jail before being moved to the official Prison for Women in 1934.
One female inmate in particular, an Irish servant girl (Grace Marks) who was convicted of murder as a teenager, became the muse for Margaret Atwood’s novel, Alias Grace. And those who have seen the TV adaptation may recognize rooms in the prison, as it was filmed on the premises!
Women weren’t the only other prisoners here. Children as young as eight years old did time for various petty crimes, such as pickpocketing and stealing. The children (and all of the inmates at the institution) were forced to keep silent, which meant no laughing, whistling, giggling or making any sort of noise at all!
4. Learn About The Prison’s Literary Guests
Everyone’s favourite classic writer, Charles Dickens, paid Kingston Pen a visit in 1842 and wrote: “There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” High praise! And he continued to say, “here at Kingston is a penitentiary, intelligently and humanely run.” Charles was clearly a big fan of prisons and similar monuments.
In the early days of the Toronto Star, a breakout of five inmates took place and made some serious headlines. Who was sent to cover this notorious jailbreak? 24-year-old Ernest Hemingway, of course! Rumour has it that Hemingway was a bit cocky after returning from his last assignment in Europe and they wanted to knock him down a peg by sending him out on simpler assignments, which obviously didn’t go as they expected.
Riots are no stranger to this type of environment, but Kingston Pen experienced three that rocked its walls quite a bit. In particular, the riot of April 1971 was a four-day violent ordeal and lead to two inmate deaths and six guards being held hostage.
For those who live in Kingston, take advantage of the Tuesday Special where you can receive a preferred local rate on the Standard Tour every Tuesday in July and August.
You’re sure to get goosebumps as you walk the hallways where these infamous stories played out, but it’s all part of the excitement of unravelling the mysteries of this incredible prison’s past.