Review of Kingston Penitentiary Tour


James Donnelly, Grace Marks, Norman “Red” Ryan. These are just some of the inmates who were imprisoned at Canada’s oldest maximum security prison, Kingston Penitentiary (figure 1). The Kingston Penitentiary, also known as the KP or Kingston Pen, was the first museum I visited in Kingston, Ontario as a new resident of the “museum capital of Canada” and as an aspiring museum aficionado.


Figure 1 The Kingston Penitentiary acted as a maximum security prison for 178 years. Following its closing in September 2013, tours of the penitentiary began to be offered, with its former workers helping lead the tours and providing interpretations of the many spaces encapsulated within the KP. Photographer: C Kish

I visited the KP during the first weekend it was opened for the 2017 season, on a dark, gloomy, rainy, and overall wet Saturday. In other words, it would have been one of those “pathetic fallacy” moments if I had actually been attending the prison as a prisoner. Given that the tour was 90 minutes and there were approximately 16 different stops along the tour, I thought it would be best to provide the top two tour highlights.

1) Past Prison Workers

At the start of the tour, the group and I met in the visiting room while encountering our first person who had worked at the prison. She identified herself and the other former prison workers as being human “artifacts” on the tour. Although having human interpreters isn’t a new concept in the museum world, being able to engage with people who actually worked at the site being visited is truly a unique experience that most museums are unable to provide. Along the tour we met with 3 or 4 more people who worked there in places like the main dome and dissociation unit. I found the KP tour’s usage of past prison workers to be smartly done and, as a result, not much text was needed for the actual tour.

2) Architecture

In 1990, the KP was categorized as a National Historic Site of Canada. It is what many of my past art history professors would have deemed a 19th-century, limestone-based “architectural marvel.” As a result, the KP is a series of buildings situated on the waterfront of Lake Ontario that juxtapose the Brutalist-style jails that we are accustomed to seeing in movies. The exterior of the prison has columns at the front, while the interior of the prison features the “main dome” (figure 2), where prisoners could be held with a lookout area below. Additionally, there was a Workshop (figure 3) for prisoners that had vaulted ceilings.


Figure 2 Here is the main dome area, where prison workers could keep an eye on prisoners. In some parts of the prison there would be 5 tiers of cells, but here you can see there are 4 tiers. Photographer: C Kish


Figure 3 Here is an image of the KP’s shop wing, which had beams of the outside shining through its vaulted ceilings. The staircases lead to rooms such as the school, where prisoners could obtain high school and college credits. Photographer C Kish

The most controversial voice element missing from the tour is that of the prisoner. Although the graffiti (figure 4) somewhat speaks acts for the people who were imprisoned at the KP, it could be argued that the tour emphasizes the perspective of the prison worker. Thus, perhaps, it would be good for the future to have more of an equal balance of perspectives. Also, keep in mind that the KP is a penitentiary, meaning one should come prepared for the weather. When I was on the tour, the penitentiary was freezing, as it was a rainy day. That being said, the Kingston Pen tour is definitely worth the $35 ticket. The idea of having past workers as interpreters and the opportunity to see a wide scope of rooms at the KP made the tour one of the top ones I have been on in the last few years.


Figure 4 Throughout the penitentiary there is graffiti left on the walls from past prisoners. Some of the graffiti provides simple instructions, such as “Do not use when hot water is plugged in,” with an arrow drawn towards an outlet. In contrast, there is also graffiti that has a high usage of exclamation marks, capital letters, expletives, and perhaps even imagined extensions to song lyrics. Here, a prisoner wrote “Hell’s going with you write it on your back, all this will fade to black,” which could be interpreted as someone adding to Metallica’s song “Fade to Black.” Photographer C Kish



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