canadian prisons - University of Windsor

Federal Institutions
Kingston Penitentiary (KP)
Roger Caron describes Kingston Penitentiary in his 1985 book Bingo! as follows:
In many respects Kingston Penitentiary was like a small city. It had a name, a mayor
(the warden), a city council (classification board), a police force (goon squad), and a jail
(solitary confinement). There were also things that approximated a hospital, a movie
theatre, a recreational hall, churches, and industries – everything to sustain life, but no
warmth and no love.
The heart of the institution was housed inside the dome, which rose to a cathedral-like
cupola, below which was a circular catwalk with gun ports. Inside the dome were eight
cellblocks branching off from the centre like the spokes of a wheel: a beehive of more
than six-hundred cells stacked next to and on top of one another like building blocks.
Here one could see no floors above ground level; instead there were tiers four stories
high, two deep, back to back. Everything led to the dome, which contained a maze of
metal stairways and circular galleries, illuminated during the day by hazy sunshine and
at night by a dozen spotlights.
Inside the dome fresh air was at a premium. The atmosphere was stifling, making it
difficult to breathe. The cells were so narrow that by stretching out your arms you could
easily touch both walls at once. The only pieces of furniture were an iron bunk fastened
to the wall by a short chain, and a century-old toilet and metal sink with two kinds of
water, “running” and “cold.” The only opening in the cell was a barred gate less than
thirty inches wide set in concrete a foot thick. The drums were damp and cold, and the
sewer system was infested with bloated rats, some as big around as groundhogs, with
large yellow teeth. Sometimes late a night when pressed by hunger the rats would crawl
forth from the lidless toilets and chew viciously at the toes of a sleeping convict. The
rest of us would be awakened by horrified screams that sent us all searching for
something to cover our toilets with.
Millhaven Institution
Michael Harris, author of Con Game, describes Millhaven Institution:
“Millhaven, which is not only the reception centre for Ontario but also one of two
maximum-security institutions in the province, is a (much more) daunting sight. Its
twenty-foot-high fences are topped with coils of glistening razor wire and studded with
eight towers manned by armed guards. The officer in the main tower watches new
arrivals through binoculars as they approach the prison. Everyone who enters Millhaven
must pass through security in the identification building outside the main gate. It is a
dramatic moment. When the inmate walks through the first gate, it closes behind him as
the second gate opens. The sound of the lock of the second gate clicking into place
removes all doubt of what he has left behind and where he is going.
Millhaven is one of the most modern and secure of the country’s maximum-security
institutions. The living units contain ranges on two levels, with twenty-nine cells per
range. The steel cell doors, painted vivid shades of green, pink, and purple, run along
either side of a walkway. The floor is plain grey cement, since the original flooring was
destroyed in a 1997 riot. The windowed cells feature a bed and a desk and are bigger
than their counterparts at the older KP. Although there is double-bunking in A Unit at
Millhaven, all J Unit prisoners have their own cells.”
Julius Melnitizer likewise describes Millhaven in Maximum, Minimum, Medium,
especially Reception where new inmates await classification:
“Millhaven’s main corridors, incongruously flooded in natural light from windows on eight
side, converge on the “Dome”, the central rotunda that is the institution’s nerve centre.
On our way from A & D, we passed through four sliding gates, a security post at the end
of each corridor, and, in the Dome itself, the metal detector inmates call a “stool pigeon.”
These constraints isolate trouble spots, limit communication among inmates, control the
flow of contraband, and underscore the strict limitations on movement that dominate
maximum security prisons.
A Unit’s ranges consist of eight-foot-wide hallways with cells on each side, built around a
glassed-in tower called the “bubble”; each range has its own washer, dryer, and collect
telephone. The bubble overlooks the TV lounge, four common rooms, and the canteen;
only the cell interiors, the showers, and the utility rooms are beyond the bubble’s view;
elsewhere, anything that moves is watched. Steel plates with holes in them dot the
bubble’s perimeter, enabling the guards to point their firearms virtually anywhere in the
…I followed Peter up the stairs past Control to C range, where cell C23 was to be my
“drum”, my house Down Under. The cell door was much like the others I had
encountered, a heavy steel sliding contraption with a viewing slat eighteen inches wide
and three inches high, opened and closed electronically from the bubble. The bars I
expected never materialized; in Ontario’s federal institutions, only Kingston Penitentiary,
and a few ranges in Collins Bay feature that zoological characteristic. A generously
sized window opposite the door was secured by horizontal painted metal planks three
inches wide and set six inches apart; the grid formed by the bars was barely noticeable,
unlike the ominous vertical black iron rails that commonly depict prison settings.
Fenbrook Institution
Michael Harris paints a picture of Fenbrook, a medium-security facility in
Gravenhurst, Ontario:
“In sharp contrast to the log buildings at minimum-security Beaver Creek Institution, also
in Gravenhurst, there is no doubt that Fenbrook is a medium-security federal penitentiary
– at least from the outside. The administration building and main communications
control post feature a double sixteen-foot-high fence festooned with rolls of razor wire
and two remote-controlled gates. Although there are no weapons inside the institution,
except at the main post, there is an armed mobile patrol that circles the prison day and
Inside the walls, Fenbrook looks more like a college campus or seminary than a federal
prison. The prison itself consists of a series of buildings set around a vast central
quadrangle. Footpaths link the grey, low-rise, cement-block and wooden buildings. At
one end of this huge quadrangle, there is a pair of towering light standards with
crosspieces near the top. Cruciform in shape, they are jokingly referred to here as the
“resurrection” lights.
One of the unique features of the prison is the street signs, whose names come straight
out of Leave It to Beaver. Tamarack Way, Forest Circle, Whitepine Lane. There are
also resort-style names of reach of the prison’s buildings: Aurora, Juniper, Driftwood.
The attractive cottage complex where inmates have seventy-two-hour family visits is
called Meadow.
Fenbrook’s four living areas feature several large apartments shared by nine men each.
An unarmed prison official occupies a desk in the foyer of each unit like a check-in clerk
in a hotel lobby. Every unit has a large kitchen with a fridge, a stove, and cupboard
space and a common eating area. Seventy-five percent of Fenbrook’s inmates have
private rooms, with the balance double-bunking in university-residence-style units.
Warkworth Institution
Julius Melnitzer describes Warkworth, a medium-security federal correctional
facility situated in eastern Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes district, where he spent
some time:
“Chain link fences over twenty feet high, topped with barbed wire, surround Canada’s
largest prison, a medium-security institution. Raised, squarish, grey watchtowers sit just
beyond the fences, but the freestanding variety of buildings on the spacious grounds, the
greenery, and the neighbouring farmhouses modify the prison’s austerity; the barbed
wire disappears in the irregular, pastoral pattern of the undulating hills.
Unlike Millhaven, which speaks to a world of fences, Warkworth seems separated by
fences of necessity, like a factory or an army base. The large parking lot on the northern
and western perimeters reinforce the impression that people work, but do not live, within.
Warkworth’s enormous yard boasted two weight pits, exercise bicycles, Stairmasters, a
miniature-golf course, two tennis courts, a soccer field, two baseball diamonds, a small
single-hoop basketball surface, a punching bag workout area, water fountains, an icecream stand, and a central recreation shack. Spectators sat on bleachers along the
playing fields, and idlers gathered about hexagonal cedar tables built around the trunks
of the yard’s shade trees. A three-quarter-kilometre, two-lane walking and running track,
heavily used, encircled the yard; in one corner, the inmates who had been lucky enough
to win the annual draw for gardening plots grew their chosen assortment of vegetables
and fruits.
Beaver Creek Institution
Julius Melnitzer offers a description of the minimum-security Beaver Creek
“camp” in his 1995 book Maximum, Minimum, Medium:
“No sally port, no watchtowers, no fences, no uniformed guards, just an open barrier and
a sign announcing Beaver Creek Institution, succeeded by the Corrections Service
Canada designation in a discreet font. Our migratory jail turned right onto the camp’s
paved road, ending our journey beside the main building, a chalet-type structure the size
of a small country hotel.
Spring slush overshadowed Beaver Creek’s natural beauty on this cloudy day. The tornup asphalt road that wound its circular way through the site suggested a logging camp in
the muddy those of construction. As I stepped out of the van, I could see a tennis court,
a miniature golf course, and a baseball diamond. The curious who approached to check
out the new arrivals wore the breezy garb of vacationers, making it difficult to distinguish
the inmates from the staff.
Inside the main building, enormous picture windows, extending to the full height of the
twenty-five-foot ceiling, dominate Beaver Creek’s indoor visiting area. A nine-by-six TV
sports screen, most often tuned to CMT, hovers over the far end of the spacious room,
used by the Creek’s one hundred and twenty-five inmates…
The trailer, four attached, unattractive, yellowish-white mobile homes configured much
like a mini-Millhaven, contrasted unfavourably with neighbouring Accommodations…
Inside the trailer, which housed two-thirds of Beaver Creek’s population, a short hallway
led to a dingy L-shaped vestibule with low ceilings, dirty walls, four aging wall
telephones, decrepit arm-chairs, and linoleum scuffed beyond redemption. A once-white
fridge stood in the vestibule’s corner, its exterior competing with its stained, greasy
interior whose odours wafted to our group when a brave inmate, dressed in a colourful
headband, Benetton shorts, and a Pit Bull Gyn sweatshirt, opened the door to retrieve a
jug of milk.
The six-pak just off the common area, on the other side of the trailer’s three ranges, was
a welcome relief. The room was clean, amply ventilated by two windows that looked out
on the woods, with a rural ambience that soothed. The uncrowded room had ample
space for three bunk beds, six gym lockers, and three small desks. The standard door
and the absence of bars, a toilet, or a sink distinguished the six-pak from a cell.
Provincial Institutions
Several ex-prisoners and journalists have outlined the conditions of various
provincial correctional facilities.
The Don Jail
Caron (1985, pp. 32-33) describes the Don Jail:
“The Don Jail was constructed like a miniature penitentiary with high grey walls and gun
towers guard more than 400 prisoners under sentence or awaiting trial. The news media
and grand juries had been condemning the archaic dungeon for decades. The Don had
been the scene of many grisly executions and gruesome suicides, men and women who
preferred to take their own lives rather than spend another lonely night in one of the
coffin-like cells with no plumbing or lighting.
Living in a cell that consisted of three walls, 138 steel bars, a cast iron sink and toilet and
a narrow metal bunk was enough to make a guy wish fervently that he hadn’t committed
a crime – or at least that he hadn’t got caught.”
Toronto East Detention Centre
Melnitzer (1995) points out the deteriorating condition of Ontario jails, describing
in particular the Toronto East Detention Centre:
“The East was squalid, dirty, and under-maintained, living up to its reputation as one of
the worst jails in Ontario…My cell, and as I later learned from my range mates, most of
the cells, was full of dead flies and assorted insects (which must have been there for a
long time as it was February), soiled and torn mattresses, unwashed floors, cracked
faucets and basins, all sprinkled with a gentle cover of grime, dust, dirt, and bits of food.”
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