Kingston Penitentiary, Canada's most notorious prison, officially closes its doors
Published Monday, September 30, 2013 8:41AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 30, 2013 10:45AM EDT
After 178 years, the formidable Kingston Penitentiary, once home to some of Canada's worst criminals, is ceasing operations as a federal correctional facility today.
The federal government announced last year that it would be shutting down the aging maximum-security facility in Kingston , as a money-saving measure, as well as the Leclerc Institution in Laval, Quebec.
Although the last inmates have already been transferred to other facilities, Monday marks the prison's final day of operation as the facility prepares for decommissioning over the next several months.
What will eventually become of the facility, which is located on Kingston's picturesque waterfront and designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990, remains uncertain. But the prison's near-term future has been set.
For three weeks starting on Wednesday, the penitentiary will be open for guided tours by Correctional Service Canada volunteers. The tours are part of a fundraiser for the United Way in Kingston, Ont. And it seems the $20 tickets are the hottest thing in town; all 9,000 sold out in a week.
Sometimes called Canada's Alcatraz, Kingston Penitentiary opened in 1835, before Canada itself was formed. It has gone on to become one of the oldest continually-used prisons in the world.
Over the years, the notoriety of the prison and its staff grew, fuelled by many prisoners’ accounts of daily beatings at the hands of wardens, brutal riots, and "the box" -- a notorious upright coffin in which inmates were sealed for hours at a time as punishment.
Most of those horrors occurred decades ago, says Dennis Curtis, who served as the prison's media relations office for several years.
"The more fascinating stuff was from the early years when it was a lot more vicious place than it has been recently," Curtis told CTV's Canada AM Monday.
Over the years, there were a few successful prison breakouts, but there was also at least one not-so-successful break-in.
Curtis says there was one prisoner who was released around 1847 who realized a few days before Christmas that he had no money. But the man knew where in his office the warden kept the petty cash box hidden.
"So he decided to see if he could get into the prison," Curtis recounted.
"He got a ladder, put it up on a wood pile and lowered himself down over the wall on a rope. He then got the money and went to get out of the prison but the rope broke, unfortunately. So he ended up stuck in the prison. And the next morning, they had one more inmate than they should have had.”
That daring theft attempt earned the prisoner another 18 months behind bars for "felonious theft."
Rick Osborne, a former gang member who served 24 years in prison, including a stint at the Kingston Pen, says when he arrived at the prison years ago, he had no idea what he was getting into, but quickly realized why the prison is considered "the belly of the beast."
"It really does have all those years of history and you can feel it when you go in," he told Canada AM.
The penitentiary's carved stone walls and neoclassical-inspired design might seem "quaint" to some, but to a prisoner like Osborne, it was anything but.
"I was glad to get out of Kingston because it was such as dungeon," he said.
The prison's cells were tiny because they were built during a time when men were much smaller, Osborne says. He says he lived in constant fear that there would be a war or riot and that he and his fellow prisoners would be shot in their cells.
Osborne was later transferred to Milhaven and finished his sentence in 2003. He's now a motivational speaker who talks to children and youth about the dangers of gangs, drugs and crime.
Osborne says when he first heard that the prison would be shut down, he was glad to see it go.
"But now that it's going, I wouldn't mind being one of the people on the tour who gets to sit in my cell again," he said with a smile.