Canadians are celebrating 150 years of nationhood on July 1, marking the birth of the Dominion in 1867. The year also marks an origin point for Kingston Penitentiary, although the institution already was 32 years old at the time of Confederation. Built on the north shore of Lake Ontario in eastern Ontario, on a small bay adjacent to the Village of Portsmouth, the facility was known for the first three decades of its existence as the Provincial Penitentiary at Portsmouth. It received its first prisoners on June 1, 1835. It was renamed Kingston Penitentiary in 1867, becoming the new nation’s first federal prison. Confederation may have stirred joy and national pride, but it was not a happy time for prisoners of the Dominion. A repressive regime of enforced silence, punishment and hard labour persisted at Kingston Pen.
The warden of the newly renamed Kingston Penitentiary in 1867, Donald MacDonell, wrote, at the time, that convicts of the penitentiary were seen as being devoid of rights:
So long as a convict is confined here I regard him as dead to all transactions of the outer world.
In 1867, convicts of KP still endured brutal punishments for minor breaches of rules. They could be struck with a switch or cat ‘o nine tails, confined in dark cells, placed on bread and water diets and shackled in chains. When a new warden, James Ferres, took over from MacDonell in 1869 and issued a report in 1870, he noted that he found “five convicts wearing a chain; one had carried it for six months, three for seven months, and one for nine years!”
Records reveal that in 1868, more than 800 lashes were inflicted on convicts and more than 40 prisoners were punished with the ‘cats. Two boys (children were confined in the pen) were punished with a switch. The federal government closed Kingston Penitentiary in 2013. Its future remains uncertain, although it remains open to public tours.
A page from the warden’s report for 1868: