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Murder on the Inside

Murder on the Inside

The True Story of the Deadly 1971 Riot at Kingston Penitentiary
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A few months into researching the story I found myself driving to Kingston, Ontario, the picturesque town on the shores of Lake Ontario where Canada’s most famous prison opened in 1835. The original facility consisted of a single cellblock containing one hundred-and-fifty-four cells. Designed to hold five hundred inmates, its population grew every year as more and more desperate men found themselves locked away inside its walls.

I was heading into the ‘belly of the beast,’ having snagged a hard to find ticket for the Kingston Penitentiary Tour. Since the penitentiary closed its doors in 2013, thousands have flocked to the notorious prison to finally get a look inside. But I wasn’t just a curious tourist; I was a writer on a mission to find the true story behind the events of April 1971. I knew Kingston was the place to begin my research, after all it was the birthplace of the Correctional Service of Canada, and Kingston Pen was one of the city’s defining institutions. But, by the time I drove back to Toronto twenty-four hours later, I was only certain of one thing: the ghosts of the 1971 Kingston Penitentiary riot were not going to be easily awoken.

Although the riot had occurred decades earlier, I soon discovered this was an event that few were willing to revisit. Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) that controls all federal penitentiaries was quick to ensnare me in red tape. Calls and emails would go unanswered for weeks. Every request led to more forms and more delays. The Canadian Penitentiary Museum, which is conveniently housed in the former Warden’s office across the street from Kingston Pen, informed me that they had little information about the riot. The Kingston Police also had no records dating back to 1971.

Multiple trips to the Ontario archives required more paperwork, Freedom of Information requests, and further appeals. When documents were finally received they would often be heavily redacted. A trip to Queens University archives to obtain historical photos from the Kingston Whig Standard led to even more frustration when it was discovered that someone had removed all of the photo negatives related to the four-day riot. But with each disappointment or closed door, I remained determined to exhume this story from behind prison walls.

Eventually, I was put in touch with a group of retired correctional officers. When I contacted the organizer of the group she was more than willing to offer assistance in trying to find any officers who had worked at Kingston pen during the riot, but she cautioned me that they might not want to talk. Once again I was up against a well-entrenched code. Prison guards for the most part, like police officers live behind a “blue wall” of silence.

A carefully worded email was distributed to over one hundred retirees, but my inbox remained empty. Then, a few weeks later I received one, short cryptic note; “I was there, but I don’t know how much I can tell you.” Eventually a few more emails followed. Soon, I was headed back to Kingston for several clandestine meetings in shopping malls and coffee shops. security prison during its deadliest siege, when men from all walks of life, convicts, lawyers, newsmen, politicians and prison administrators were thrust together to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to a dire situation. Out of the fray emerged some unlikely heroes who saved hundreds of lives including those of the kidnapped guards, while others sadly turned their rage towards the weakest among them.

But half a century after the Kingston Penitentiary riot when prisoners asked to be heard and demanded to be treated humanely, we have to ask, what have we learned? Our country still struggles with fundamental questions related to incarceration and basic human rights. Cruel injustices continue to happen in our prisons every day.

It is my hope that in re-creating this moment in our penal history, I have offered the reader a glimpse into a world that remains hidden from our view. A peek behind the curtain of a correctional system that is still deeply flawed in its philosophy and practices. Famous Russian philosopher Dostoyevsky once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But how are we to judge, if we are still not allowed to see inside?

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The Don

The Don

The Story of Toronto's Infamous Jail
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On December 31, 1977, the correctional services minister of Ontario rang out the old year with a sledgehammer blow to the cornerstone of an old building on the east side of the Don River in Toronto. He was not alone: another senior correctional services official and a well-known activist also took a crack at it. Watched by television crews, newspaper reporters, politicians, police officers, jail superintendents, and a few bemused members of the public, they finally managed to chip away a one-foot-square piece of stone from the building’s façade.

The target of all this negativity was the infamous Toronto Jail, also known as the Toronto gaol, the Don Jail, the Old Don, or, simply, the Don. It was not the first time that this institution, located at the northwest corner of Gerrard Street East and Broadview Avenue, had been assailed during its 113-year lifespan, but previous attacks had been verbal rather than physical. The jail had been variously called a “lion’s den,” a “black hole of Calcutta,” “Toronto’s Bastile [sic],” or worse. The correctional services minister liked to call it a “monument to human misery” in the “early barbaric” style.

Very occasionally, on the other hand, the Don Jail had been lauded as a veritable “palace for prisoners,” incorporating the finest and most progressive of correctional philosophies. This was certainly true in the mid-1800s, when the building was conceived and constructed.

The Don, Toronto’s fourth jail, opened its doors to its first reluctant residents in 1864, predating the Confederation of Canada by three years. It originally stood remote from the city on the “wrong” side of the Don River, the meandering and strategically significant waterway that spilled into Lake Ontario just east of where a tiny settlement had been established in 1793 by British colonists in what was then the newly formed province of Upper Canada.

In accordance with a Royal Proclamation of 1763 relating to the governance of Britain’s territorial possessions in North America, the legal system adopted in Upper Canada was English law.

When it came to criminal justice, did British law guarantee the fair and equitable treatment of those accused of committing an offence in Upper Canada? Not at all. In those days, it was all about crime and punishment. And the crime did not have to be very significant by modern standards to earn a very harsh penalty, one generally administered in full public view. Cursing or refusing to go to church could lead to corporal or physical punishment — flogging, branding, or being locked in wooden stocks for hours or days were the norm. Then there were the offences that were punishable by death. The list of capital crimes in Upper Canada in the early 1800s was a long one: prior to 1833, a person could receive the death penalty for killing (or even maiming) a cow, burning a stack of corn, or impersonating a pensioner. And, as was laid down in English law, capital punishment always meant death by hanging.

While the penalties generally involved public humiliation or shaming, there were, of course, also jails. Authorities needed a secure place to confine offenders pending the execution of their sentence. Primitive lockups have existed from early times; however, the idea of detention as punishment is more recent, largely influenced by the writings in the late 1700s and early 1800s of reformers, such as the British philanthropist John Howard, who were horrified by the appalling conditions they came across in penal institutions.

In 1792, an act was passed by the first Parliament of Upper Canada that called for the construction of a court house and jail in each district of the province, and another law in 1810 provided for the use of jails as houses of correction for “idle and disorderly” persons. By the mid1800s, two types of institution had emerged in Canada for the confinement of wrongdoers — or alleged wrongdoers.

The first, jails, were generally smaller establishments, run by local or district authorities. In addition to serving as “holding tanks” for people on remand (that is, awaiting trial or sentencing), they housed offenders with short-term sentences or those appealing their sentences, as well as individuals waiting for transfer to a provincial or federal facility. As many of these inmates might be guilty of serious crimes such as armed robbery or murder, and as some of their stays turned out much longer than anticipated, it followed that jails were viewed as maximum-security facilities.

The second type, penitentiaries, were run by provincial and federal governments to house prisoners serving longer sentences. An act in Upper Canada in 1834 paved the way for the construction of the first Canadian penitentiary, which opened the following year at Portsmouth, near Kingston, and later became known as the Kingston Penitentiary. Besides imposing hard and often unproductive labour on offenders, early penitentiaries were designed to give them time, lots of time, to repent their actions through isolation, silence, and hefty doses of religious instruction.

The Don Jail, originally a joint venture between the City of Toronto and the County of York, belonged in the first category. By 1958, nearly a century after the Don’s opening, grossly inadequate conditions and chronic overcrowding in the antiquated building led to the addition of a new wing. This newer facility was officially called the Toronto Jail, but, predictably, it was nicknamed the New Don, and, eventually, the Don. Both jails were taken over by the province of Ontario in the late 1960s.

The pages that follow are not an academic treatise on penal philosophy or Canadian correctional institutions. Instead, they tell of the struggle in one small corner of the Canadian correctional system to negotiate the complicated and often contentious relations between a jail and the city that sprang up around it. The story of Toronto’s infamous Don jails raises thorny questions: How and why did the Old Don deviate so radically from the enlightened reformist principles that underpinned its architecture and original correctional practices? Did the jails protect individuals on both sides of the barred doors and windows? Did they in any way meet the requirements of a rapidly expanding city in an ever-changing world? And what should be done with a toxic artifact once it has outlived its original function?

Although attention will be paid to both jails, it is the original Don that, as the book’s cover so graphically illustrates, forms the main focus.

In addition to bringing to light the facts behind its location and construction, THE DON is the intertwining saga of the historic jail and the people who have occupied it during its one-hundred-and-fifty- plus years of existence. To quote American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “all houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted houses.” Many men — and women — have lived and died within the bleak precincts of the Don Jail. You will meet a large and diverse group of the spectres, both benevolent and malevolent, that haunt the unhallowed halls of this notorious place: the pitifully young and the old; the guardians and the guarded; the criminal, the innocent, and the mentally afflicted.


Ontario corrections minister Frank Drea was not granted his New Year’s wish for 1978. The fourth Toronto jail still stands on the east bank of the Don River, in the very heart of what is now the thriving urban community of Riverdale. Today, the building seems much diminished: a small, stone centre block with two wings, dwarfed by a multi-storey health centre on its western flank. For much of its existence, however, this controversial institution dominated the news, the skyline, and the consciousness of the city.

So this, too, is a story of Toronto, seen through the prism of the infamous jail that, since its inception in the mid-1800s, has left such an indelible mark on the city it has served.

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Wasted Time

Chapter 1: The Younger Years

Regent Park, Canada’s first social welfare housing project, is located in the city of Toronto, in the province of Ontario. The neighbourhood sits one mile east of the city’s downtown core, just north of the shore of Lake Ontario. It covers an area four city blocks by four city blocks. Since its inception in the 1950s, low-income families have been provided “affordable” housing there. Based on the number of family members, they were either placed in row houses or an apartment in one of the many three- and six-storey rust-coloured buildings. Five high-rise buildings also provided domiciles within the project. The infrastructure of brick and concrete left no illusion that this “neighbourhood” was anything but a project. From the onset, Regent Park was regarded as a “high-crime” area — the highest, most every year, in the city. Notorious for violence, renowned for drugs, Regent Park made knowledgeable people regard its borders with great trepidation.

In the summer of 1956, my family took up residence in one of the many row houses. I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a resident of South Regent Park.

Considering the hardship each family in Regent Park endured, people were generally friendly to each other, but aloof. Those more familiar, whether by proximity or social ties, would converse. People respected each other’s privacy, unless action dictated otherwise. Child endangerment definitely prompted intervention. Interloping, otherwise, was regarded with disdain. Men, fathers, were rarely seen. They worked long hours, were dead, or divorced of their families residing in Regent. The project housed two elementary schools, with another on its border. The children attended class together, and played together. The women busied themselves maintaining households, while nurturing their young. Like that of my mother, who bore eleven children, their lives were strenuous. For us children, ignorant of the outside world or its responsibilities, life was good.

I recall the sky being unusually grey. Not blue at all, for a midsummer morning. I had toddled out of the family backyard to sit with a neighbour, a girl my age, on the curb of the parking lot that lay out back of our row houses. She was sad. We began to look at all the debris that the wind had blown into the trench our feet now rested upon. Beer bottle caps, empty cigarette packages, bubble gum wrappers. At four years old, we imagined these as treasure.

A loud bang pierced the air, accompanied by a woman’s screams. We looked over our shoulders to see the girl’s mother racing frantically along the side of the row houses. Another bang followed. We looked over our other shoulders to see the girl’s father standing outside his backyard. Before the third bang had a chance to reverberate, I was airborne. Flying high up in the air, I landed on my mother’s hip. Where had she come from?

“You, too,” she snapped, as she yanked the little girl off the curb. She took off running, a child on each hip, back to the safety of our house. She locked the back door and peered out through a window.

I never heard the last bang, but I heard the story of an unfaithful wife who had escaped death, and a distraught husband who, after failing to hit his target, sat in his chair and ended his own life. The remaining family moved soon after. I felt sad for the little girl, and I would miss her company.

My own family was no stranger to domestic violence. My alcoholic father had struggled against the burden of raising eleven children on a paltry wage and his need to be “the man” amongst his friends at the local taverns. After administering several physical beatings upon my mother and eldest siblings, he was, I am told, convinced to leave the family abode at the insistence of a loaded shotgun. I was five years old. Growing up in Regent Park, I found domestic violence to be a prevalent factor in the lives of many families. Of course, it was sheltered “in-house” as much as possible. The Children’s Aid Society was regarded in the neighbourhood as “home wreckers” and “child stealers,” and the police were always the enemy of the people.

My best friend as a child was my next door neighbour, Wayne. He was the middle brother of three, who all suffered the affliction of muscular dystrophy, wheelchair-bound, with no muscle control. I would talk and watch TV with them daily. We played board games, such as checkers or chess, but I would have to move the men for them. Once I was big enough to push Wayne in his wheelchair, we’d go around the neighbourhood, to the corner stores, the restaurant. As I got older, around nine, he had me push him to salvage yards and the dockyard beside the lake. Wayne seemed to know everyone, and all the men would give him coinage. We would be rich when we returned, upwards of three dollars apiece.

One morning, he talked me into pushing him down to the CNE grounds. The Exhibition had just opened, and we wanted to see the midway and go on some of the rides. So we set out. We got lost. With night having fallen, and rain coming down, I pushed Wayne into a corner store in the city’s northwest end. The woman took one look at us, Wayne in his wheelchair, and called the police. We both knew our addresses, so the police drove us home. Both our mothers thanked the police profusely. Wayne’s mother was kissing his head. My mother was tanning my ass. They still let us hang around together. Wayne would pass away at an early age because of his disease. His two brothers suffered the same fate.

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Beyond Incarceration

Beyond Incarceration

Safety and True Criminal Justice
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Kingston Penitentiary (KP) was convulsed by a four-day riot in the spring of 1971. The event captured headlines across the country and caught the attention of Kingstonians, who normally went about their daily lives without thinking at all about the institution within their city limits. Yet the prison was hard to ignore. It squatted directly beside the sidewalk of a busy thoroughfare, abutting one of the tonier developments in the city, and commanding a spectacular view of Lake Ontario and Wolfe Island — a view that the prisoners would never see. Its heavy oak gate boasted a massive brass ring. To gain entrance, you had to reach through the iron bars and thump the brass ring against the door — not a high-tech system, but effective. There were gun towers at every corner. A relic from the past, KP was notorious for containing some of the most dangerous men in the country.
During the KP riot, prisoners took six guards hostage, trashed much of the prison, and severely beat a number of fellow prisoners, two of whom died. It was a pivotal moment in the history of incarceration in Canada. What happened then demonstrates why it is urgent that we rethink the way we deal with those who break the law today.
The problems that precipitated the riot in 1971 continue to persist in 2017. Many prisons are old and crumbling. With inadequate facilities, they are not decent places for people to live. There is serious overcrowding, leading to unhygienic and dangerous living conditions. A shortage of professional staff and curtailed rehabilitation programs result in frustration among prisoners since they are unable to complete their release programs and qualify for parole. Far too many people whose crimes could be dealt with by other means are instead imprisoned in high-security institutions. Making matters worse, those in prison are spending too much of their time in their cells with little to do, while extreme polarization between guards and prisoners produces deterioration in the life of the institution. There is a system of grievances, but it is slow and frustrating.
An inquiry determined that these were the conditions that caused the KP riot. We will see that, although things improved somewhat in the ensuing decades, conditions in the Canadian prison system have recently regressed, because of an ideology that advocates being “tough on crime.” This approach shows a preference for long prison sentences and harsh conditions of imprisonment. The concerns expressed in the inquiry are still concerns today.
In 1971, the riot ended with no physical harm to the prison staff who were taken hostage. Their personal belongings were even returned to them. The prisoners surrendered, but did so without having achieved any of their demands. However, a good part of the prison was destroyed and two prisoners died.
The response of the prison system was brutal. Hundreds of prisoners were transferred immediately to the new, unfinished, but already much-feared Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary. There they were met by a gauntlet of prison staff who beat them as they entered the prison for the first time. One prisoner talked about being kept in segregation (the “Chinese cell”) in Millhaven after the KP riot. He said he was chained up for long periods of time with no clothes on. Guards would dump buckets of cold water on him during the night, to keep him from sleeping.


Perhaps this level of brutality was inevitable, given the long and tortuous history of the penitentiary system. The idea of imprisonment began centuries ago, largely as an alternative to earlier, even harsher punishments meted out to those who broke the law. It was determined that locking people up would be better than maiming, torturing, or hanging them. Mere imprisonment must have seemed a progressive development. But over the centuries prisons developed into an inhumane and counterproductive system, one complicated by many contradictory purposes.
By the nineteenth century, prisons were no longer thought of as simply an alternative to brutal corporal punishment. They were instead intended to be redemptive — a place where wrongdoers could be reformed. When Kingston Penitentiary opened in 1837, it was thought that crime was a social disease. The laziness of the poor and their lack of a moral compass were, it was believed, what led to crime. According to this doctrine, separation, obedience, strict religious instruction, and hard labour were necessary to teach people to respect order and authority. Respect for order and authority was pursued with missionary zeal, which led to extreme treatment that was more likely to break the prisoners than to reform them. Absolute silence, lengthy segregation, and repetitive and pointless labour like the treadmill — all of these were supposed to make prisoners reach a penitential state so they could be safely released back into society.
Despite the assertion that these punishments were meant to do good, an investigative report published in 1849 (the Brown Report) claimed that Kingston Penitentiary was rife with inhumane treatment. It referred to the case of an eleven-year-old boy, Peter Charbonneau, who had been committed to prison for seven years. In the space of eight and a half months, he was lashed fifty-seven times for offences like staring, winking, and laughing. Imagine expecting a small boy to refrain from this kind of behaviour, and then punishing him severely in the expectation that he would somehow thus be “reformed.”
This could never happen in the twenty-first century, you say. On the contrary, the notorious case of nineteen-year-old Ashley Smith, whose odyssey through the prison system began at age fifteen when she lobbed some crabapples at a mail carrier, is a shame to us all. Ashley could be difficult and uncooperative. She was known to have mental health problems. Treatment would have been an appropriate approach to take with Ashley. Instead, she was incarcerated and placed in solitary confinement on her first day in custody. Ashley repeatedly tried to harm herself, resulting in interventions by staff and dozens of institutional charges. During her eleven and a half months at Nova Institution in Nova Scotia, there were 150 incidents involving Ashley that staff responded to with use of force. Many of the incidents involved Ashley’s propensity for self-harm.
Ashley’s one-month sentence stretched into nearly four years in custody, served entirely in isolation. The law requires a review of any period of segregation of more than sixty days. However, in truly Machiavellian style, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) took to transferring her to different facilities, which allowed them to restart the clock and so avoid the reviews. At no time was a comprehensive mental health assessment done, although the need for one was clear. In 2007, after seventeen transfers to eight different prisons in the space of eleven months, Ashley took her own life. Guards at Grand Valley Institution watched her as she died.
This is how far we have come in over 150 years. The physical and mental torture of the twenty-first century may take a different form from that of the nineteenth, but it results just the same in severe damage to individuals and unnecessary and cruel loss of life. Ashley was not unique in her desperate response to inhumane treatment at the hands of correctional authorities. We will see that suicide and self-harm are all too common in prison.

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Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, V26 #1&2

Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, V26 #1&2

Dialogue on Canada’s Federal Penitentiary System and the Need for Change
tagged : penology
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