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Kingston Penitentiary (Federal Correctional Institution)

Quick Facts
Country Canada
Province Ontario
City Kingston
Security-Level Maximum-Security
Website Kingston Penitentiary
Jurisdiction Federal
Year opened 1835
Capacity 564
Population 494
Famous Prisoners Paul Bernardo, and Russell Williams
Kingston Penitentiary

Historic Facts

First opened in 1835 Kingston Penitentiary was to be a "humane, effective, and cost-efficient" means serving criminal justice. Modeled on the Auburn system, advocating prison industrial work as a method of prison reform, the prison's policy enforced hard labour on its inmates for the purposes of punishment, reform, and profit. For the first 15 years these objectives did not materialize, and the penitentiary's inmate population continued to grow (Chunn 1981).

Kingston Penitentiary was the birthplace of the Canadian Penal Press, with the publication of the Penitentiary's "The Telescope" in September of 1950. Since this time, more than 100 publications have been produced by Canadian inmates (Gaucher 1989).

Kingston Penitentiary was also central in developing the first introduction of medical services into federal correctional facilities.

Author Stephen Reid penned his first novel in Kingston Penitentiary, in which he described the honest and brutal power of prisoner-literature. Reid, who lives in Sidney BC, is also married to writer Susan Musgrave.


May 6, 1999: Tyrone Conn, considered a modern-day prison "houdini" for escaping from some of Canada's most secure facilities, escaped from Kingston Penitentiary on May 6, 1999, shortly before dying from a gun-shot wound during a police-standoff. He had been negotiating over the phone in his girlfriend's basement, in a house on Alberta Ave, with CBC TV producer Theresa Burke and a defense lawyer.

Conn welded extensions to a hand-made ladder and used a grappling clamp, which he had constructed where he worked patching mailbags in the prison shop, to scale the 10 metre-tall perimeter fence. To disrupt the scent of the bloodhounds, he carried with him a manilla envelope filled with cayenne pepper, which he sprinkled behind him as he fled. He also made a fake dummy of paper-stuffed clothing so that the guards would be fooled during head counts. Conn hid in the shop to construct his ladder, after all the other inmates had filed out and returned to their cells. Conn waited until the southeast tower guard went off duty at 11 p.m., broke through a screen door in the loading bay and bolted across the yard to the fence. Because of his dummy ploy, his escape wasn't discovered until the next morning. (2 May 1999 The Toronto Star)

A week after his escape police believed he robbed $15,000 from a CIBC bank in Colborne, a town just east of Toronto, the same bank he had robbed following a similar escape from Collin's Bay Penitentiary in 1991. He stole a Buick, and robbed a Canadian Tire store of a shotgun and two boxes of shells. He then drove to Scarborough to get rid of the vehicle.

The Special Investigations Unit, a quasi-external review body that investigates police involvement in misconduct, injury, or death, began looking into the case, but any inquest was called off in 2001 by an Ontario coroner, who indeed confirmed that Conn had committed suicide.

Following Conn's escape, Kingston Penitentiary instituted a number of improvements in security, including new, round-the-clock staffing of guards on watchtowers, and more thorough roll-call systems. (22 May 1999 Winnipeg Free Press)

Hostage-Taking Attempts and Riots

In April 1971 a riot broke out over the protest of inmate "undesirables," including sex offenders and informants. Inmates were dragged from their cells, tied up and tortured on the dome floor of the penitentiary, resulting in the deaths of two prisoners and a subsequent police investigation (Desroches 1974). However, scholars have speculated there were numerous factors underlying the eruption of the riot in 1971, not the least of which was stigma-targeted violence. Boredom was considered a major factor, fomenting a culture of agitation, restlessness, and pent-up rage common to many maximum-security penitentiaries, and what may be involved in the so-called "rage complex" endemic to the supermax facility.

Another major reason was the institution's inability to maintain a strong treatment program for offenders. Coupled with severe overcrowding, crumbling living conditions, staff shortage, improper placement of low-risk individuals into high-security units, idle time, and a notable lack of staff or communication channels responsive to inmate complaints and requests. Specifically, the Swackhamer Inquiry that followed the riot identified what it termed as "depressing and dehumanizing" qualities of imprisonment to be at the top of its list of potential factors.

According to psychiatrist George Scott, an environment of hopelessness, disinterest, and apathy surrounded correctional rehabilitation and the prospect of actually completing one's sentence successfully. As conditions worsened and this sentiment progressed, correctional staff naturally began to restrict more privileges to constrain rebellion, establishing an increasingly more strict, maximum-security regime that gave inmates littler and littler breathing room as the years went by. Conditions progressed to a point at which inmates at Kingston Penitentiary were daily experiencing a kind of "maximum security psychosis" (p.20), where inmates were confined to their cells 16 hours a day, were forbidden cell decorations, and required to subject all personal possessions such as books, or musical instruments to search and seizure. In a merciless attack on the conditions at Kingston Penitentiary, the Inquiry stated that such an environment will render the convict "submissive to the inmate culture," and it concluded by saying that "such a regime does a real injustice to a human being and is destructive of whatever humanity may be within him."

14 years later, in March of 1985, inmates took four nurses and one prison guard hostage at Kingston Penitentiary's hospital. The hostages eventually managed to slip through a door and lock it behind them, allowing a tactical team to sweep in. One hospital nurse, Gladys Whelan, who was a diabetic, was released early.

After it was over, the hostage takers were put into solitary confinement. There were no injuries sustained or pharmaceuticals taken from the hospital. 10 days prior to the hostage-taking inmates had staged a strike, in which they presented a list of complaints to the warden that included cold food, overcrowded visiting room, guard harassment, and overcrowding. (15 March 1985 Associated Press)

One year after the riot, in 1986, Robert Edward Brown was knifed to death by a fellow inmate who had been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder since 1983.

3 years later, in August of 1988, two inmates in the Regional Treatment Centre located within the psychiatric-section of the penitentiary took one nurse hostage in order to secure enough drugs to commit a prison suicide. Inmates barricaded the doors with furniture, belts, and clothing tied into knots.

The prison was locked down, as a tactical team stationed itself outside the cell and negotiated with the prisoners throughout the day, even though Correctional Services of Canada does not make "deals" with hostage-taking inmates. The Treatment Centre, which houses sex offenders, and disturbed and unmanageable inmates serving two years or more, is located on the third floor.


Dr. George D. Scott has written briefly of his experiences with suicidal and self-injurious inmates at Kingston Penitentiary, and several of these experiences are listed below.

One inmate, who committed suicide in 1964, collected over the course of his 2 years as an office cleaner minuscule amounts of carbon tetrachloride from each office in the institution. When he eventually collected enough to destroy his kidneys (approximately 6 ounces) he killed himself.

The Coroner's Report revealed the death of another inmate in 1974 that had overdosed on methyl hydrate, known as rubbing-alcohol, from an inmate who distributed cleaning supplies throughout the penitentiary.

In another act of self-injury, one female inmate broke her water glass in her cell, wrapped it with damp toilet paper, and swallowed it. She died six days later from bowel perforations. Some have tried swallowing razor blades and bits of wire, but most of the time this was unsuccessful, assuming suicide was even their objective.

One inmate at Kingston Penitentiary decided to hatch an escape plan that would have almost certainly resulted in him being shot by a prison guard when he would attempt to scale the perimeter wall. However, that plan failed, and the inmate requested a transfer to British Columbia. Shortly after, he provoked a number of inmates until one of them stabbed him multiple times in the chest, arms, and abdomen. He was again unsuccessful.

Prison inmates, however, are not the only members of Kingston Penitentiary to commit suicide. By March of 2001, three Kingston-area prison guards had already committed suicide, shortly after an RCMP investigation into a staff-supported drug-smuggling ring began. The police probe began looking into the smuggling of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol, but no charges were immediately laid. Only a month after the investigation, 50 year-old prison guard Geoffrey McConnell feared he would be implicated in the smuggling plot, and killed himself in the parking lot of Bath Institution. He had driven to the prison, asked a fellow guard there to lend him his pistol, then walked to his car and fired a fatal shot into his brain. Later, in 2000, prison guards Gail Perkins and David Perkins took their own lives, as well. (The Globe and Mail, 22 March 2001)

On April 12, 1990, Richard Veinotte killed himself on April 12. With a rope he had fashioned from a canvas-bag obtained in the prison's canvas shop, he hanged himself over the frame of the top-bed bunk in his cell.

Another inmate, serving a life-sentence for second-degree murder, died in October of 1993, along with a string of other suicides at Millhaven and Warkworth, all within a week of each other. Following the victim's suicide, there were recommendations that Kingston Penitentiary set up an emergency phone line, much like a 911 line or a distress-centre hotline for inmates-at-risk.

When native female prisoners at Kingston Penitentiary were asked about their attitudes towards female prisoner suicides in 1991, they responded that it was much the same as when a prisoner attempts to escape; there is an element of encouragement, and the majority of female prisoners actually respect a woman who chooses to die if she cannot deal with what the system is delivering her. (Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 9 February 1991)

Marlene Moore, made somewhat famous by her immortalized for a short period of time after the Kingston Whig-Standard ran a 48 page article on her 1989, was a chronic slasher and self-injurer from childhood. She traveled through several jails, detention centres, community centres, and mental heath facilities before she was finally returned to Kingston Penitentiary in the spring of 1988. She was designated as a Dangerous Offender (the only female Dangerous Offender in Canada in 1989), and was to serve an indeterminate sentence, likely for life. There she was put into solitary confinement and kept under constant watch with television surveillance. In the end, however, she still managed to kill herself, just that December (The Globe and Mail 13 Dec 1989).

Famous Inmates

Paul Bernardo

Paul Bernardo, the notorious rapist, torturer and murderer, has been serving an indefinite life sentence at Kingston Penitentiary's maximum-security unit since 1995. As of June 2005, the "dangerous offender" is in solitary confinement, imprisoned in a cell three paces long and only an arms-length in width, confined for 23 hours a day. Bernardo is serving the longest sentence of any inmate on his range, but is receiving no programming. Instead he spends his time reading, writing letters, and working out in his cell. Bernardo's wing of the prison, which he shares with the other elite group of Kingston Penitentiary's "worst of the worst," is separated by both steel bars and Plexiglas so that other offenders walking past the bars to his unit don't throw objects at the inmates within.

He is also forbidden to speak with the media, including a recent CBC interview that was cancelled by the warden. Although Bernardo has much he wants to say about his once fiancé sex-killer-puppet Karla Homolka, Correctional Service Canada is enforcing his silence.

Despite these restrictions, however, according to his lawyer Bernardo is exercising regularly and maintaining good health. According to the Toronto Star, Ontario Region communications officer Holly Knowles is stated as saying that allowing media access to Bernardo would "feed" his notoriety, increasing his "grandiose" and "narcissistic" desires. This decision to prohibit media involvement is directed by Bernardo's personal Offenders Correction Plan, a long-term treatment plan to which every inmate is assigned. In addition, increased media access may also encourage more animosity and instability within Kingston Penitentiary's walls among fellow Bernardo inmates, constituting a security-risk (The Toronto Star, 25 June 2005).

In February of 2006, Bernardo confessed, by correspondence through his lawyer Tony Bryant, for 10 more sexual assaults he had committed but that had been blamed on others. One of these had occurred in 1986 in Guildwood Village, where he had been living with his parents at the time, and another the same year on the University of Toronto campus at Scarbourough. In 1989 he sexually assaulted another woman outside a Kennedy Rd apartment complex near the 401. It is now also suspected that Bernardo was involved in the disappearance and death of U of T student Elizabeth Bain in 1990, a point argued by the defence of Robert Baltovich, who was convicted of the murder in 1992 (Toronto Star 21 February 2006).

A year before in June, however, a reporter from the Toronto Star, Nick Pron, had the privileged (if not illicit) opportunity to speak face-to-face with the killer in his cell. As described by Pron, Bernado's face was white, and his features "blowsy." He had gained weight, probably from working out. Their eyes at locked for a long moment, the reporter gazing up at Bernardo in his second-floor cell, before Bernardo disappeared back into the confines of his closet-sized cell. According to Pron, the cell was as close to rotting in jail as the public could hope to imagine (The Toronto Star June 21 2005 ).


Scott, GS and Bill Trent. 1982. Inmate. Optimum Publishing International.



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