This Week in History


"Canada's Oldest Reformatory Prison"

For the week of Monday May 28, 2001

Opened on June 1, 1835, Kingston Penitentiary was the first prison in Canada whose primary purpose was to reform rather than punish its inmates. "Kingston Pen's" layout and its rehabilitation system provided the model for all other federal prisons until the 1950s.

Aerial view of Kingston Penitentiary

Aerial view of Kingston Penitentiary
© LAC / PA-30472

Before Kingston Penitentiary was built, Canadian jails were places where people were held for short periods before execution, exile or public humiliation. Kingston Penitentiary represented a new way of dealing with Canada's criminals. Here, inmates were to be reformed by a program of hard work, total silence, solitary confinement and religious instruction. Each prisoner spent his non-working hours in a tiny cell, no larger than a public toilet stall, so that he could think about his errors and the consequences of his misdeeds. It's not surprising that these cells, once numbering 840 and located in the main cellblock, were later condemned as inhumane.

An American prison officer, William Powers, drew up the original plans for Kingston Penitentiary. Private contractors constructed the first cellblock, but for nearly a century thereafter, all the buildings, the massive walls and the impressive front gate were erected by the inmates themselves. The rest of the cross-shaped cellblock, its trademark dome, the hospital, the dining hall, three huge workshops and a separate prison for women were all the work of the prison population.

One of Canada's most prominent authors found Canada's oldest surviving penitentiary especially intriguing. Based on a notorious double murder in Canada in the 1840s, Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace is largely set in Kingston Penitentiary and offers a remarkable insight into life in a mid-19th century prison.

The former warden's residence, built outside the walls in 1873, now houses The Correctional Service of Canada Museum. Its fascinating collection of artifacts illuminates many aspects of correctional history in Canada, including illegal weapons and escape paraphernalia which demonstrate the cleverness and resourcefulness of generations of desperate inmates.

Kingston Penitentiary

Kingston Penitentiary
© Parks Canada

An enduring symbol of Canada's commitment to law and order, Kingston Penitentiary, though altered, is still a maximum-security prison. The main cellblock is one of the largest surviving examples of a Canadian public building in the neoclassical style — a style characterized by symmetry and balance in its design, the use of columns and other decorations derived from the buildings of ancient Rome. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1990 and commemorated with a plaque, erected on April 30, 1997.

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