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?