The Kingston Penitentiary

The Kingston Penitentiary

The Kingston Penitentiary has become a top site for visitors to Kingston. It was a maximum-security prison that opened on June 1, 1835. It closed in September 2013 and was deemed a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. Touring the prison was made possible through a partnership between Correctional Services Canada and St. Lawrence Parks Commission ( SLPC). The SLPC hires students to act as tour guides, and they partner with retired Correctional Service employees to provide a detailed and authentic experience.

On a unique and interesting historical note, Charles Dickens, the English author, visited Kingston in 1942 and wrote about it in his American Journal. He penned how impressed he was with the governing and regulation of the admirable jail in each respect. He was taken with how the men were employed as ropemakers, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and stonecutters and were building the new prison. He was also impressed that the women prisoners were employed in needlework. “There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed and excellently regulated in every respect. The men were employed as shoemakers, ropemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and stonecutters and in building a new prison, which was pretty advanced towards completion. the female prisoners were occupied in needlework.”

Construction started in 1833 and opened in 1835, making it one of the oldest prisons in continuous use globally at the time it closed. The site was chosen for its access to ready water and a large quantity of fine limestone. Kingston is also known as the Limestone City for its many grand limestone buildings. By 1845 towers, stock walls, the north gatehouse, and a 12-foot high fence were in place. A dome was added that connected four cell blocks in 1861.

There have been several riots through the years, but in April 1971, a four-day riot erupted. Six guards were taken hostage and eventually released, but it ended with the death of two inmates and the destruction of much of the prison. In 1954 over 900 inmates started a riot, fires, and attempted a breakout, but the prison guards did foil the attempt. The tour guides, including former Penitentiary staff, have many stories and facts to share with visitors.

The Tours take you through much of the building, seeing the cells, the Indigenous Grounds, the metal shop, Regional Treatment Centre , gymnasium, and the former segregation wing. Be prepared for the weather, as about one-third of the tour is outdoors. The Extended tour includes the Upholstery and Canvas shops, the Laundry Room, and the Hospital.

There are several tour options to choose from; the Standard Tour is 1.5 hours long, or the Extended Tour lasting 2.5 hours and includes more areas. Both the Standard and Extended tours are available in French and some other languages. Also, tours are available in American Sign Language upon request. The Penitentiary offers Inclusive tours for people with vision loss and mobility needs, and disabled visitors and their assistants receive complimentary admission. Wheelchairs are available if needed.

Directly across from the Penitentiary is the Correctional Service of Canada Museum. It is located in “Cedarhedge,” the original warden’s residence of the Kingston Penitentiary when it was constructed in 1870-1873. The museum offers a wide range of artifacts and exhibits from across Canada’s Federal Correctional system. Most of the tour guides are former correctional officers or employees who are highly knowledgeable and able to answer visitors’ questions. Visitors report hearing some great stories and testimonials from former prison guards, warden, and a nurse. The history of Kingston Penitentiary and other correctional centres are told with exhibited artifacts, photographs, and replicas. The museum is the only penitentiary research service in Canada, and it contains most of the Canadian correctional institution’s historical records.

Located along the beautiful shores of Kingston is the infamous Kingston Penitentiary, with a long-standing history of housing some of Canada’s most notorious criminals. Now closed to prisoners but is open to the public to come and hear the mysterious tales from the former prison guards and learn the dark history of Kingston Penn. It is a rare and intriguing way to spend a day. 

Check out The Springer Market Square and Kingston City Hall which is in Kingston ON too.

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