The sky is flawlessly blue and the June sun shines high overhead, but I feel chilled in the limestone passage way of the 138 year old Kingston Penitentiary. Part of it I know is a logical chill – the rock walls keep out most of the heat. But the other part is an emotional reaction to going behind the walls of the historic jail. I’m holding my breath, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m nervous or excited, and chances are it’s a bit of both.
Guided tours of Kingston Penitentiary is the result of a partnership between the Correctional Services of Canada, the City of Kingston and the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, which operates and sells tour tickets. In 2013, all of the 18,000 tour tickets available sold out, making this one of the most sought after travel activities this summer. Many dates this summer have already sold out, but last minute tickets are sometimes available, and visitors buying a Kingston K-Pass will unlock tickets to sold out tour dates and received preferred pricing on tickets.
Our tour starts in the VC – Visitor’s Centre for short – where we’re given bracelets so we don’t get lost or left behind (it’s a fast-paced 90 minute walking tour covering more than kilometer of the prison’s labyrinth of ranges).
Knowledgeable guides share many of Kingston Pen’s most notorious facts and figures: The institution opened in 1835 and was built mostly by inmates; there have been three riots over the years; in the Metal Shop, inmates made everything from padlocks for the public to wrought iron for the parliamentary library; escapee Norman “Red” Ryan scaled the wall in the recreation yard at its lowest point.
What sets this tour apart from any other tour is that your guides aren’t just guides, but former guards and skilled storytellers at that. Corrections officers, most having spent at least 30 years working at the Pen, add colour to the stories. For me, this vibrancy is unexpected and adds a decidedly human touch to a tour that could lapse into recitation of those notorious facts and figures.
“Don’t get me wrong. It was a hard job, you know? It’s a prison after all. But we had some good times in here, we had some laughs with the guys,” recalls a guard who leads us through the G Range, the block of 32 cells that are open to the public. When referring to Kingston Pen, he uses feminine pronouns, giving me the feeling that guards and inmates here developed a relationship with the jail.
And though there are cells on the G range that are set up to look as those they would have when the prison was open, it’s tiny details that connect you with what life was like here.
A tattered net hanging from a basketball hoop on the yard.
A message to Kingston Pen written in black marker.
Faded footprints in the Shop Dome where inmates had to stand before being allowed in or out of the shops.
Shreds of sheets tied and still hanging from the bars of Cell 13.
A multi-coloured clown painted on the crumbling wall of the VC.
And that’s what everyone should take away from Kingston Pen Tours, is that it’s not just one story of the Pen, which follows a neat timeline from it’s construction to its closure. More accurately it’s a collection of stories, and yes mysteries, that you should try to unravel yourself.
One guard explains the tours best.
“You can go on Wikipidia or Google and read about the Pen. Go ahead. But this is your jail too, and the limestone will get into your bones as your walk through here. Ask questions, lots of questions, because that’s the only way you’ll really get to know her the way we know her.”