The History of Kingston Penitentiary

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The History of Kingston Penitentiary

Kingston Penitentiary is located on the shore of Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada. It has served as the main symbol of punishment in Canadian society. Penitentiary Houses were first created in Great Britain in 1779. It was on June 1, 1835 that Kingston Penitentiary formerly known as the Provincial Penitentiary admitted its first six inmates.

It represented a new world of confinement that removed the convict from his community and regimented his life. It introduced society to a new notion of punishment and reform. (Curtis et al, 1985)

People expect a penitentiary to hold inmates, especially dangerous ones, for as long as the court determines they should serve. Kingston Penitentiary has been doing that for many years. But it has also dedicated to the reform of inmates. What that means has changed dramatically over time. (Curtis et al, 1985)

The first inmate to enter Kingston Penitentiary was Mathew Tavender who was sentenced to serve three years for grand larceny. He was placed in cell number four and was put two work as a stonecutter two days later. He was whipped on August 30, 1835 which was three months after his arrival, along with inmate number two, John Hamilton.

John Hamilton was sentenced to three years for felony. He was made a stonecutter on his third day and then a mason. Both he and Mathew Tavender were whipped together which may imply they tried to make contact with each other, this was strictly forbidden.

Inmate number three was Edward Middlehurst who was sentenced to five years for grand larceny but was actually released. He was the first carpenter at the penitentiary but after a year got sick and was moved to another cell. He is not on record on the roster after he was sick for three months, so whatever he had must have been contagious. He may have received a pardon which was a common way to deal with sick convicts.

It was felt that it was better for diseased people to stay outside of the prison walls so the sickness would not spread to the others. The penitentiary was not equipped to deal with death because it had no cemetery but still had to pay for a gravedigger if someone died on the inside.

John O'Rourke, inmate number four was sentenced to five years for grand larceny. He received his first rawhide beating two short weeks after his arrival.

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He was the one who cut stone for his entire prison stay where he died in 1838.

Inmate number five was John Dayas. He was made the cook on his second day at the penitentiary. John Harris was appointed his assistant but was put into labour and lashed after two weeks. When William Riley arrived he was made the cook in September. It was pretty convenient that he was trained right before Dayas was lashed and put to work as a stonecutter.

William Riley was let go as the cook because he was caught, probably stealing, so he was made a labourer and lashed seven times. The next inmate to become the cook was B. R. Snow. By then it was 1837, and there were one hundred and twenty seven convicts in the penitentiary.

Inmate number six was Joseph Bonsette who came from Newcastle. He was in the kitchen for only one day before he was made a stonecutter. When he became ill after a year they switched his job over to shoemaker. He performed this work until he was released in 1840.

Henry Smith was subsequently appointed the first Warden of the Provincial Penitentiary at Portsmouth, a fact that was noted in the Kingston Chronicle. "Mr. Smith's habits of industry and active vigilance make him peculiarly fit for this responsible office." So too did his close association with the party then in power in the Legislative Assembly. (Curtis et al, 1985)

A chaplain was appointed as kind of an "officer" of the prison. This indicated to everyone that even the criminals were going to have religion influenced on them as part of their rehabilitation. In the beginning of the prison system there were no such things as sociologists or psychologists to work with the inmates. It was up to the prison priests and ministers to help the inmates.

The inmates lived under a strict code of silence. Even though they worked together all day, they were not allowed to communicate with each other in any way. They were only allowed to make hand gestures to the guards. They were not supposed to interrupt the "so-called" harmony at the prison. Warden Smith recorded his sentences in a Punishment Book. The inmates received six lashes for laughing, and were served only bread and water if they were in their cell barking like a dog. There were also the Board of Inspectors who thought flogging was the answer for a variety of offences.

The food they served was usually from the dregs of the local markets. They did not have proper facilities to store the food in, and it was usually soggy and flavourless when fed to the inmates. They mostly ate bread which was usually mouldy. Then, and even now, the inmates prepared their own meals.

The most common crime for which both men and women were imprisoned was larceny (stealing money). Next was theft of animals-horses, cows, sheep and other farm and domestic animals were all listed as separate offences at the time. A thief might get only a year in jail for taking a pig or cow, but a horse or an ox could bring a sentence of five years. (Curtis et al, 1985)

It is interesting to compare life in prison then, to life in prison now. Prisoners now get paid for work they do in the prison (example, six dollars a day for doing the laundry). Prisoners now have cable television, stereos and video games in their cells. They no longer get lashes, but put in "the hole" away from all the other inmates. They have "socials" with their families and friendly contact with each other is encouraged. These things are supposed to boost their morale to make them "better inmates."

While inmates still prepare the meals, they enjoy a wide variety of selection including barbeques, turkey dinners and desserts. They are locked in their cells for most of the time unless they are working, but they are allowed to shower, go outside for recreation or go to the weight room to "burn off steam."

Inmates are also allowed to get education in prison. Getting their high school equivalent does not cost them anything. They do have to pay for university courses-not as much as everyone on the "outside" does though. They are also encouraged to take counselling and anger management classes.

Although prison is not the place where most people would like to be, the system has changed with the times, and inmates rights and privileges seem to have changed with them. Inmates can press charges against the prison and the guards if they feel their rights have been violated. Quite a change from the times they were not even allowed to "bark like a dog" in their cells.


Curtis, Graham, Kelly, Patterson. (1985). Kingston Penitentiary-The First Hundred and Fifty Years. The Correctional Service of Canada: Ottawa, Canada.

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