Tickets go on sale today for the new season at one of the hottest tourist attractions in Canada. The infamous Portsmouth Prison, better known as the Kingston Penitentiary, is once again opening its doors to tourists.
The structure was opened for tours last summer and sold out quickly. My wife and I were fortunate to be among those who got to see what went on behind those imposing limestone walls by Lake Ontario. Tickets were at a premium and spots were limited. I went online the second they were made available to the public, and I imagine demand will still be high this year.
The Pen was closed in 2013 after a 178 year run and having housed some of Canada’s most feared criminals, including Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams. It is a now a huge, mostly empty, shell. It was a nice place to visit – and very nice to be able to leave.
The massive exterior walls hide the inside of the complex from the street, preventing you from seeing just how big Kingston Penitentiary really is. The 90 minute tour that was offered last summer was illuminating, to put it mildly.
We don’t think all that much about crime and punishment in the normal course of events. Being law-abiding why should we? But there are those who break society’s rules who have to be removed for protection or to teach them a lesson. And in Canada there was no more notorious place to incarcerate someone than the Kingston Penitentiary.
The tour shows you a cell block, the school he solitary confinement cells and a few other spots of interest. The tour guides, for the most part, are people who worked at the prison and have first-hand stories to tell. The stories are more generic though, rather than glamorizing any particular criminal or crime. There were no insider stories, except they were all insider stories.
Such a tour doesn’t address the central issues of crime and punishment, rehabilitation and reconciliation. How do we as a society effectively deal with those who break an agreed upon set of rules? Are the traditional models obsolete? Do our punishments fit the crime? Is there a better way, something that would do more to recognize the humanity of those in prison? I have the questions, I don’t have the answers.
Does it make sense to warehouse offenders in the 21st century? Are prisons merely a training school for criminals, a graduate school of sorts where amateur criminals earn their graduate degrees to become professionals? Once again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that the tour was worth the time and money. They don’t make prisons like that anymore (thankfully). I had thought about filing this post with statistics, but I figure you can look those up on your own.
I understand that criminal activity has lessened in Canada over the past 50 years. I wonder if that is because we are more law abiding, or has the way we measure crime changed? Is that per capita, which might mean there are more incidents even as the crime rate drops. Certainly there are those who think government needs to get tougher on crime. Those people probably are sad that the Kingston Pen is no longer operational.
The people who are happiest about the situation though is the people who get to run the tour. Last year a 90 minute tour was $30, and every slot was filled. This year the same tour is $35, and there is a new slightly longer tour for $55. Crime may not pay, but there’s money to be made from our fascination with it.