Three years after shutting down, Canada’s oldest and most notorious prison is now a blockbuster tourist attraction. Is it trading on tragedy?

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Published in United Church Observer in January 2017

The Kingston Penitentiary was home to Canada’s toughest criminals for 178 years before the federal government shuttered the maximum-security institution three years ago. Now, the decommissioned prison offers tours to the public.

A look behind its imposing limestone walls offers insight into how the men who did time here were more than just the sum of their crimes - they were also sons, husbands and fathers.

You can see this in the drawings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse made by inmates on a wall in the open visitation room, in a corner designated as a children’s play area.

And in the row of semi-detached cottages with tiny yards where, for 72 hours every two months, model prisoners could pretend they were living a regular life, barbecuing behind coils of barbed wire, watching TV with their kids, having dinner with their mother or sharing intimacy with their spouse.

But these glimpses of humanity are overshadowed by the sensationalism of the place: its reputation for retribution rather than rehabilitation, as indicated by its long history of employing instruments of torture such as a strapping table, used until 1968, where a prisoner’s wrists and ankles were shackled while he was beaten with a leather belt by guards who received extra pay for their vicious work; the brutal riot of 1971 when inmates took control of the prison for four days; the not-uncommon suicides and suicide attempts; the tense and threatening environment that made it necessary for inmates to carry homemade shivs and shanks.

But mostly, Kingston Penitentiary (“KP,” as it’s known) is notorious for being linked with this country’s most reviled inmates, the dozen or so headline-grabbing names among the 400 prisoners who lived there in the last years of the prison’s operation.

The infamous men of the Lower H-range, locked up 23 hours a day in protective custody behind a shield of Plexiglas over the steel bars of their cells to prevent other prisoners from hurling objects at them and to stop them from throwing their own human waste at their jailers, included Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Wayne Boden, Michael Rafferty and Mohammad Shafia.

Known as Canada’s Alcatraz, it’s no exaggeration to call KP a hellhole. It’s a place where no one ever wanted to end up. But now tens of thousands of tourists want in.

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