The first penitentiary in British North America sits on 8.6 hectares of land at 560 King Street West in the City of Kingston, County of Frontenac. The Kingston Penitentiary fronts onto Lake Ontario on the south side, a residential area to the east, the penitentiary museum and now decommissioned prison for women site to the north and the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour to the west. There surrounding stone walls contain more than 40 buildings.
Originally called the “Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada,” (provincial penitentiary, for short), the institution was constructed in 1833-34 under the reign of King William IV. Under the direction of William Powers, an American, its design was heavily influenced by the system in place in Auburn, New York at the time.
The facility consisted of a single, large limestone cellblock containing 154 cells in 5 tiers and some wooden outbuildings used as industrial shops, sheds, stables and residences for the administration. It officially opened on June 1, 1835 with the arrival of the first six inmates. Henry Smith was the first warden and Powers was appointed as the first deputy warden. When completed, it was the largest public building in Upper Canada.
The original cells measured 73.7 cm (29 inches) wide by 244 cm (8 feet) deep and 200.7 cm (6 feet, 7 inches) high. The entire compound was initially surrounded by a 12-foot high picket fence made of wood. The cells remained the same small size until the first major renovations were undertaken between 1895 and 1906.
The other wings of the main building (B2, B3, B5) were begun shortly after the opening and completed in the 1840s. The stone walls, towers and north gatehouse were finished in 1845 and the dome was added between 1859 and 1861. The north wing originally housed the dining hall, kitchen, hospital, keeper’s hall, administration offices and residences.
The B8 building was begun in the late 1830s as the dining hall and chapel and the B7 building was commenced in the late 1840s for use as the permanent hospital facility. Limestone industrial shops were built in the
southern part of the yard in 1845, containing shops for blacksmithing, carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and a “rope walk” for making rope. The buildings now occupied by the regional treatment centre were begun in the 1850s and originally used as additional shop space.
With the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, the institution became known as the “Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Canada” and, after Confederation in 1867, became more commonly known as “Kingston Penitentiary.” It was one of three such institutions placed under the federal government control – the others were in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick.
Women were incarcerated within the institution’s walls, although segregated from men, for the first 99 years, and children as young as eight were also held in the early days.
Kingston Penitentiary has experienced three major riots – in October 1932, August 1954 (causing extensive damage and the need to rebuild the central dome) and April 1971. The latter was the most serious; staff were taken hostage, inmates were killed. The south wing was so badly damaged that it never reopened as a cellblock. In the aftermath, Kingston Penitentiary became the regional reception centre, receiving and assessing all newly admitted inmates in the Ontario Region and classifying them for transfer to a parent institution. It held this role until 1981.
Today, Kingston Penitentiary accommodates a static inmate population classified at the maximum-security level, many of whom cannot safely integrate into other institutional populations. The temporary detention unit, which was relocated from Millhaven in February 1998, can house up to 37 inmates. The unit re-assesses more than 1,000 offenders each year for placement at a parent institution.
The regional hospital, which provides 24 hour nursing care (including palliative) and the regional treatment centre, an independently managed mental health treatment facility, are also on site. The institution also manages the regional hospital surveillance team, providing security services for inmates admitted to community based hospitals.
Most of Canada’s more notorious inmates have spent time at Kingston Penitentiary. Inmate convictions range across the broad spectrum of Criminal Code offences and the population represents a cross-section of Canadian society, including foreign nationals (the majority face deportation orders upon release).
Each of the buildings in the Kingston Penitentiary complex more than 40 years old were evaluated in May 1990. The north gate and main cell block complex were designated as federal heritage buildings and a recognized designation was agreed upon for the north gate, shop dome, east and west workshops, administration building and five towers.