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The Don

The Don

The Story of Toronto's Infamous Jail
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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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