As notorious Kingston Pen closes, people are offering big bucks to get in

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
As notorious Kingston Pen closes, people are offering big bucks to get in

I got a look into the B.C. Pen after it was shut down in 1980 and most of it was being demolished for residential redevelopment, so I understand the stampede of people scrambling to get tickets for sold-out tours of the Kingston Penitentiary.

The 178-year-old prison closes officially on Monday and its inmates were transferred some time ago.

Postmedia News reports the last batch of the 9,000 available tickets disappeared quicker than spots at a One Direction club stand — 2,000 tickets in less than half an hour. The tickets have a face value of $20, with proceeds going to charity.

But the Post said people are offering up to five times that much for a spot on one of the 90-minute tours. The Kingston Kijiji online classifieds site has one person willing to pay $100 a ticket.

The Kingston Pen, a national historic site, predates Confederation. Its Dome design, which gave guards a direct view of all prison cells, was considered state of the art at the time. It was dubbed by some as Canada's Alcatraz, housing some of the country's most notorious criminals. And like the Rock, Kingston Pen has people fascinated by that history and willing to pay for a look inside.

[ Related: Kingston Penitentiary’s planned closure brings spotlight on almost two centuries of history ]

Among prisoners, it was known as the "Hall of Shame," former inmate Lee Chapelle told The Canadian Press.

“The moment you go through the gates, there is a darkness about it,” said Chapelle, who served short spells there in 2001 and 2008 for property crime. “You feel the heaviness in the air.”

Corrections Canada announced last year that Kingston would be closed. The rundown institution was obsolete, deemed too costly and inefficient to manage the "institutional routines of today's complex offender population." Decommissioning is slated to be completed in 2014-15.

Kingston opened in June 1835 as the provincial penitentiary for what was then Upper Canada, CBC News noted. It eventually had a capacity of more than 500 prisoners but often held many more.

Its original rules included enforced silence. Inmates were not allowed to "exchange looks, wink, laugh, nod or gesticulate to each other." Breaking that or other rules earned the transgressor the lash.

Kingston Pen once held children as young as eight, including Antoine Beauche, who was lashed 47 times in nine months, "for offences of the most childish nature," according to the report of an 1849 inquiry headed by George Brown, a future father of Confederation.

The prison was the scene of regular uprisings, including 1932, 1954, which involved 900 inmates, and the most serious in 1971, involving 500 inmates when six guards were held hostage for four days and two prisoners were beaten to death.

Kingston was a place of constant tension and confrontation, CP reported. Inmates got into fights constantly and guards were frequently targeted by prisoners who spit on them, threw urine and feces and punched and kicked them.

The climate in Kingston wasn't helped by the prison's reputation as a dumping ground for problem guards, CBC News said.

“You walk in there and you feel like you’re walking into some weird tombs of hell or something,” David Fairbairn, who delivered educational programming to inmates around that time, told CP.

There have been only a handful of escapes in Kingston's history, the most recent involving bank robber Ty Conn, who managed to get out of protective custody but apparently committed suicide when police closed in on him.

[ Related: List of notable inmates of the notorious Kingston Penitentiary ]

Part of the fascination with Kingston is, like Alcatraz, the long list of infamous prisoners it's housed in almost two centuries.

They include teenage maid Grace Marks, imprisoned in 1843 for her part in the murders of her boss, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper. The murders formed the basis for Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace.

Then there was 1950s Toronto bank robber Edwin Boyd, head of the so-called "Stopwatch Gang," and Roger Caron, the career criminal-turned-author who became known for his daring escapes from custody.

Among the most notorious recent inmates, serial child-killer Clifford Olson, rapist-murderer Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams, the air force colonel obsessed with women's underwear who pleaded guilty in 2010 of murdering two young women.

Outside of the planned tours, future of Kingston Pen is still unclear.

Former warden Monty Bourke told the Kingston Whig-Standard at least part of the prison could be incorporated into the Kingston Penitentiary Museum, which is located across the street and which he helps oversee.

“The current museum doesn’t change," he said. "Our idea is to acquire a small portion of the penitentiary at the north end, including the entrance."

Others have suggested Kingston would be a popular venue for movie and TV shoots, just like Alcatraz. It's already had its debut, with one of the guard towers featured in the ending of the 1978 version of Superman.