Big Country with a “Big House” History: Kingston Peniteniary

It’s all in the names. When first entering Kingston Penitentiary along King Street West, one enters through the north gate; a true testament to British and Crown authority dating from 1833. You can feel the overwhelming weight of history in all eleven and a half acres of the prison; the vast significance of the structure looking down on you from ten-metre-high solid limestone walls (complete with guard towers once housing 24-hour sentries armed with rifles). What these walls have seen can never fully be captured by one book or article, though many have been written on the subject. The nearly 200-year old former prison is a living, breathing tribute in museum form to Canada’s past and its future.

Long-term employees who have returned as guides following the prison’s 2013 closure refer to the prison simply as “KP”. It is currently in the process of changing hands from Federal Corrections to the city of Kingston. It is a slow and complex transition, comments Greg Gouthro, manager of Kingston Penitentiary Tours. “We expect five to seven years down the road that there should be some significant changes. When it eventually does change hands, the possibilities are endless.”

Currently, tours operate from May to October. Many tour guides such as Denyse van Rhyn (a former Parole Officer who retired in 2015), and Dave Champagne (a former social worker of some thirty years) spent much of their working lives at the Pen, imbedded as deeply in the fabric of the institution as the stones in the walls.

They have returned to teach about the prison’s legendary history, which people are clearly interested in. “We have sold out tours everyday,” comments Gouthro, as there are no self-guided tours. “We thought it would tone down [eventually], but it hasn’t. People come from all over the world. Our core program is a very popular site.”

It’s both an auspicious and historic day when I visit on the eighth of September. Two minutes before I start my tour, it’s confirmed that Queen Elizabeth II has died.

As I take in my surroundings of this fabled institution during this momentous juncture in world history, I can feel both fall and change in the air. The institution of the prison has changed, and so has the institution of the Crown that presides over it.

The first dominating feature of the interior grounds, which on that day is dappling in sunlight so at odds with the news from England, is the huge bell presiding over the main pedestrian and vehicle thoroughfare through the north gate entrance. Originally, the bell marked the beginning and end of the working day, in the morning and afternoon. It also existed to serve a more ominous purpose; to be rung in case of a prison emergency, ensuring off-duty prison workers living nearby and down King Street in Portsmouth were within earshot to come running and assist.

This was a necessary feature of the prison, as from time-to-time prisoners made carefully planned out, coordinated escape attempts, often with outside help. One famous encounter took place just inside the north gate in 1948, when Austin Craft and an accomplice by the name of Urquhart had previously arranged for firearms to be hidden in the rear bumper of an institutional vehicle. Craft shot and killed a guard named John Kennedy, who was driving the vehicle through the gate, and escaped. Eventually recaptured, Craft and Urquhart were the last prisoners to be hanged in the Frontenac County Jail in January 1949. Kennedy was commemorated with the naming of Kennedy Street, and buried off site.

Sitting on a park bench under the shade of several sturdy oak trees by the former women’s barracks (which was incidentally the first formal female federal corrections facility to be built in 1913, consisting of 36 cells), van Rhyn explains that during the 178 years of operation as a 24/7 prison and work site, there were seven staff deaths – five murders and two accidental.

Often overlooked in historical records is the Penitentiary’s history and contributions to Canada as an extremely profitable and monumental manufacturing site for a long laundry list (including actual laundry) of necessary industries. As a timeless testament to prisoner contributions, the limestone wall of the north gate, the street, and many other areas of the structure itself, is the direct result of quarried, cut, and mortared work by prisoners as necessary institutional upkeep. Production of a sundry of varied goods for private companies were completed in the prison until the 1880s, when contracts were terminated by the federal government due to undercutting of wages and production costs in the free market. Instead, the goods manufactured went to other correctional facilities to avoid competition with private businesses.

Manufactured goods at the prison, “a lost art” according to van Rhyn, were created in the “Shop Dome” warehouse – featuring now uncovered original brick (sandblasted bare in the 1980s) with rare vaulted ceilings, making visitors feel they have walked into the nineteenth century. This particular part of the prison was heavily employed for filming. Among several others, parts from Sarah Polley’s 2018 CBC miniseries Alias Grace, based on the novel set in KP written by Margaret Atwood on famed 19th century murderess Grace Marks. It was, according to van Rhyn, “a very busy place where industries came and went with the times and changed according to need.”

It was the hub of trade manufacturing for a multitude of skilled and unskilled industries, including: grist milling, tailoring (especially of army uniforms during WWI), RCMP uniforms, amongst others. There was also an iron foundry, producing ornamental iron work for the national Parliament building in Ottawa. Prisoners built the women’s barracks, water tower, and the Rockwood Asylum (where some inmates would inevitably be transferred). Interestingly, the longest manufacturing contract with the federal government was Canada Post for the production of postal bags, ending in 2009.

Besides providing paid employment for inmates (remunerated at a rate of $5.25 to $6.90 a day), the prison heavily encouraged continued education and to the completion of prisoners’ high-school diplomas. During the nineteenth century, a school was located on the top floor of the Shop Dome up the epic limestone staircase that is an iconic feature of the site, later moved to more modern facilities.

From there, we enter the prison yard, the scene of two epic successful escape attempts. Generally, comments van Rhyn, “guards wouldn’t want to mingle here in the yard.” They also never carried firearms on their person anywhere on prison grounds, as these could easily be taken forcibly by convicts.

Perhaps the most famous escape was by “Red Ryan” in 1923, who with the assistance of four other convicts, used grappling hooks to escape over the walls of the yard fence. Earnest Hemingway, then a reporter at the Toronto Star, came to Kingston to cover the story. Accidentally wounding a guard during his escape, this courteous convict wrote a letter from New York State apologizing, Irishman to Irishman, conveying it was not personal and hoping there were no hard feelings (a copy of the letter and postmark is on display in the museum). Using the postage stamp, authorities were able to track Red Ryan, recapturing and returning him to the prison.

A second and more recent infamous escape was by a bank robber self-named Ty Conn. Born Earnest Bruce Hayes, he was an example – as so many KP inmates were – of the cycle of poverty and unfortunate socio-economic circumstances leading many to crime. Conn came from an unstable home life, foster care, group homes, and youth detention centres. He began his criminal career by stealing food to survive, but escalated through adolescence to cars, and eventually bank robbery.

A high-profile prisoner, Conn had already escaped from several lower security institutions totalling 69 days, all incidents counted together before his famous two-week run “at large”, after going over the walls of KP in May of 1999.

Using a handmade ladder and grappling hook, and with knowledge that the South East Dome was out of commission due to a newspaper announcement, Conn literally covered his tracks from the dogs using cayenne pepper to avoid serving his cumulative 47-year sentence (despite a lack of violent offenses). During that time, he was interviewed and kept in regular touch with Canadian producer Theresa Burke and journalist Linden McIntyre, who then co-authored a book entitled, Who Killed Ty Conn. McIntyre, a journalist on “The Fifth Estate”, had previously befriended and interviewed Conn five years earlier during an investigative story he was conducting on the effects of child abuse. Ty Conn was on the phone with Theresa Burke when his hide-out in Toronto was surrounded by police, and he either committed suicide or accidentally discharged the shotgun he had with him in the apartment.


Stepping out of the harsh, unforgiving, and unprotected glare of the main prison yard with the five watch tours, I am led into a cool gymnasium at complete odds with the scene out of the Shawshank Redemption I’ve just been taking in.

In the Regional Treatment Centre, an accredited psychiatric facility (and separate institution within the walls of KP), a mural covers the walls, showing the growth, flight, and progression of a phoenix, eagle, and swan. It’s such a contrast of detailed art in an unexpected place that it stops one for a moment as the mind seeks to process the transitions. This project is just one example of the emphasis on rehabilitation, including contributions and dedication by social worker Dave Champagne, who speaks with such overwhelming kindness and enthusiasm, bouncing on his feet, about the incredible initiatives he had the opportunity to develop.  His programs laid foundations for creating enhanced clinical discharge planning guidelines across federal corrections in Canada, beginning right here at KP.

The wall was a collaboration between a group from Toronto called the Foundation for the Advancement of Young Urban Artists, and the prisoners. The artists volunteered their time and talents to come up to Kingston, conferring about what the prisoners wanted on these walls. It resulted in “a significant improvement in the prison environment for offenders,” comments Champagne. For some offenders, it enticed them to come out of self-isolation to see the mural or participate in social activities in the gymnasium. “The mural was a source of pride and wonderment for those who visited the RTC gym, offenders and staff alike.”

Champagne developed an enhanced clinical discharge planning model including provision of clinical accompaniment support for offenders transitioning from institution to the community. Formerly, ambulatory service nurses only accompanied released offenders destined for hospital assessment/admission.

“As a Social Worker, I developed a distinct role for client centred clinical discharge planning and expanded the clinical accompaniment concept to include a broader ‘determinants of health’ perspective, including consideration for mental health follow-up, housing, identification, financial support, cultural support, general support, etc. It promoted the concept of ‘the whole person has value’.”

Read more on the program at the following link:


Author: LivingSpaces

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