Travel Blog: exploring Canada’s oldest and most notorious prison

On day 2 of our three day stay in Kingston, Ontario my boyfriend and I did something that I’ve wanted to do for years now since hearing about the closing of the Kingston Penitentiary- a maximum security prison, the oldest in the country, and one of the most notorious. We bought tickets to take a tour of the now empty prison grounds and we were both super excited about it. Our tour was on Sunday afternoon at 2:15 as we figured that we’d have time for a quick lunch and then finish the tour just in time to get some dinner. 

Because we decided to sleep in a bit, we headed toward the prison with only an hour to spare so we decided to stop for lunch somewhere near the prison so we wouldn’t be late for our tour. Luckily we did so, as we stumbled upon an adorable old pub, that was right next to the prison building, flanked on both sides by other old historic homes. 


The Portsmouth tavern was a quaint little spot, and it looked like something you’d see in a little seaside town in the U.S. You could tell it was a very old place, and it was decorated with old ship parts, and old sports memorabilia inside. It was the quintessential small town boys hang out, and I imagined that it was and still remains a place where the locals and the university students gather to drink and watch sporting events together. ( kind of like the Clam in Family Guy 😝) I was surprised by how good the food was for such a little pub! I ordered a sandwhich with fried egg and vegetables in it, with a side of fries and my boyfriend ordered a classic grilled cheese. My sandwhich was amazing, and the fries were perfectly crispy and flavourful. 


After our lunch, we parked in the prison parking lot and walked into the front of the prison where we checked in our tickets and were given wristbands, and ushered into a sitting area to await the start of our tour. In the sitting area was one of those mug shot backgrounds with height lines on it, so my boyfriend and I decided to pose against it: you can truly  grasp the extent of our height difference and of my tinyness by looking at our pictures side by side. 



I stand at 4’11 ( I’m tiny I know) and he’s a whopping 6’1. 

Our tour guide, a young woman gathered about 30 of us and we began our tour in the room where prisoners were allowed visiting hours with family and spouses. There were a few metal tables bolted to the floor where inmates could sit across from their loved ones and a corner of the room was actually painted with images of Mickey Mouse and other characters which used to be an area for the children of inmates to play while they visited the prison. Another area of the visiting quarters resembled what we more commonly see in movies, bulletproof glass plating separating the inmate from their visitor, with a phone receiver on each end that each party could use to communicate. We were told that the inmates who were at risk of sneaking contraband out or in, or had a past of hiding contraband or were more dangerous had to sit behind the glass when meeting with visitors. 

We then moved outside where we were shown the original prison entrance building, the oldest structure and the giant gates that served as the entrance, originally designed to fit horse and buggies, and later, cars. 



We were told a story about a young man who worked at the prison in the early 1900’s who was attacked by inmates and killed in the spot we were standing on, right outside the main prison entrance. Apparently, although the prison has been operational since the 1830’s, only 7 prison workers have been killed on the prison grounds. Although most were murdered by inmates, a couple died accidentally after being crushed by falling construction equipment while the prison was undergoing renovations at different points in history. 

We then entered one of the buildings were we were greeted by an ominous site- a scene straight out of every prison movie I’ve ever seen- walls lined high with cages, and within those walls, rows and rows of jail cells, all intertwined and connected by staircases. 


I felt very uncomfortable in this area of the prison and I soon found out why. An older gentleman came into the room and told us he had worked at the prison for over 30 years. He then told us about the root of 1971 which had occurred in this room, and hearing about the atrocious nature of the riot and the actions that took place made me feel sick. We were told that in 1971 on the way to the rec center, an inmate began fighting with a prison guard, another guard got involved and they dragged the inmate into the rec room together. Apparently the other inmates assumed that the two guards were ganging up on the one inmate and they all started to attack the 4 guards on duty at the time. This caused absolute chaos and the prisoners ran free, taking over the entire area for a series of days and barracading themselves in that area of the prison  before they eventually surrendered and were overtaken by more guards. During the time of the riot, some of the prisoners ganged up on 4 inmates, torturing and killing two of them. It was a disaster. 

After hearing about the riot, we were allowed the chance to see inside some of the standard jail cells. Each was relatively small and contained a bunk bed, desk, toilet, and shelf. 


The prison was closed in 2013, and some cells still had posters and personal items in them which was interesting. 

We also got to see solitary confinement, which is where prisoners got sent when they were found with weapons or drugs on them or when they were under threat of being attacked or killed by other inmates, so for their own protection. The Solitary confinement rooms were much larger and only contained a simple stone slab with a mattress and a toilet. Inmates in solitary confinement rarely left their rooms, but they were offered 1 hour outside each day in a very small enclosed court. 


A lot of the walls of the solitary confinement cells were marked with graffiti or engravings left from previous occupants. Most said “fuck”. 😝

Although we were not allowed to ask about specific inmates I was very curious about where notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo was kept as he was a resident at Kingston Penitentiary until it’s closing in 2013 at which point he and the other inmates were relocated. Paul Bernardo is a well known and widely followed case in Canada due to the gruesome nature of the murders and rapes he and his wife committed in the early to mid 1990s. Due to the nature of his crimes, and the fact that he targeted young female victims I can imagine that he spent most if not all of his stay in the penitentiary in solitary confinement for his own protection. 

One of the most impressive architectural work I’ve ever seen was inside one of the shop buildings that we got the chance to visit. Since opening its doors in the 1800s, inmates were given the chance to work in a number of shops doing tasks such as furniture upholstery, Mattress making, and even putting together mail bags for the Canada Post. The building that holds the shops is very old, and the stone work in the mattress shop which is the oldest standing shop is incredible. Our tour guide told us that the stone work on the ceiling of the room is so old that no one alive today knows how to replicate it. 


After visiting the shops area we were allowed to see the excercise yard where the prisoners got their daily dose of fresh air. What I found most surprising was that for the entire time the prison was in operation, it did not have electric wire fencing. The electric fencing was only added in 2013, which is the year the prison closed. This explains why there were so many prison escapes that took place at the Kingston Penitentiary.

While we were standing in the yard, our tour guide told us about a prisoner who had made a successful escape from the prison in 1999. Apparently he had gotten as far as Toronto, where he had been staying in a condo, when the police began searching for him. Once found however, a giant stand off occurred between him and the police which ultimately left him dead- but from an apparently self inflicted gun shot. Apparently they are still unsure if he shot himself on purpose or accidentally. 

The last stop on our tour was in a small recreation room that was attached to a section of the prison meant for inmates who needed assistance whether it be due to mental illness or old age. The room was beautifully painted, and apparently a school had painted the murals on the walls of the rec room for the inmates in an attempt to make the room more cheery. The room had basketball nets and looked a lot like a school gymnasium. 


Overall, I am so glad that we got take the tour as it was an amazing and interesting experience! I had never seen a prison before except for in movies, and the Kingston Penitentiary was in some ways similar and in others less so what I had expected. The tour guide was very well informed, the tour was very in depth and well planned and showcased a lot more of the prison than Id expected. Although I felt really eerie in many parts of the prison knowing the nature of some of the inmates held there, it was a very eye opening experience to life inside a maximum security prison. I highly reccomend this tour! 

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