Is it ethical to use former prisons, with long histories of death, suffering and wrongful incarcerations, as entertainment venues? Rockin' the Big House

A prison is no place for a party

What does it mean to hold a party in a place with a long history of death and suffering?

On Sept. 14, “2,500 lucky music lovers, history buffs and curiosity seekers will walk through the gates of Kingston Penitentiary in eastern Ontario to experience an outdoor music festival like no other, in support of United Way” called Rockin’ the Big House.

But is a prison the right venue for a public rock concert? The morality of using prisons for entertainment and philanthropy is something we have yet to fully grapple with in Kingston and beyond.

I research incarceration policy in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and also volunteer inside and outside institutions in Kingston, Ont. I hear the perspectives of those who work inside, and advocates and former prisoners outside in the community. I recently published an article on the unacknowledged history and future development of the Prison for Women. I stressed the importance of healing, memory and awareness around the use of shuttered prisons.

The use of Kingston Penitentiary is another important piece in the mosaic of a growing industry in Kingston.

Dark tourism

There are guided tours inside the penitentiary, it’s on the Kingston trolley tours route and the Correctional Service of Canada runs a museum in the former warden’s residence across the street.

Shows and movies are filmed there, including Alias Grace in 2017, and Titans in 2019. Even the downtown Holiday Inn has a selfie station with a backdrop of prison bars.

Since Kingston Penitentiary was shuttered in 2013, Correctional Service of Canada has been working with the City of Kingston and St. Lawrence Park Commission to offer public tours of the facility. Almost 230,000 people have been through the doors of the prison for tours. The concert is the latest use for the penitentiary.

This is known as “dark tourism,” a term coined by British academics Malcolm Foley and John Lennon in 1996 to describe the practice of generating tourism dollars from places that are identified with death and suffering.

Prison tourism in Kingston does not acknowledge the full history of the site, including the death and suffering experienced there. Instead, the prison is described by United Way as a place to take in sought-after entertainment. United Way also describes the prison as being known “for housing some of Canada’s most notorious criminals.”

The tours are further described by United Way as “highlighting the public’s thirst and curiosity for what went on behind the giant stonewalls.” Recent research by Canadian academics Justin Piché, Matthew Ferguson and Kevin Walby indicates the tours are curated to commemorate the contributions of staff, while portraying prisoners as purely dangerous and cunning through sensational stories. There is no indication that the upcoming concert will offer a different narrative.

Dark history

The tourism marketing leaves out mention of the suffering and death that occurred within Kingston Penitentiary’s walls. The prison confined wrongfully convicted individuals, including Steven Truscott, Romeo Phillion and Guy-Paul Morin. There were also children confined within the penitentiary.

A prison report from 1965 notes historical commission data that boys and girls as young as eight were incarcerated and subjected to corporal punishment. For example, eight-year-old Antoine Beauche was imprisoned in 1845 for three years. He was lashed within a week of his arrival and a further 47 times over the next nine months.

The punishment was for behaviour that included talking to others, looking at others, winking, nodding or laughing. Another child, Alex LaFleur, age 11, was lashed on Christmas Eve 1844 for speaking French.

Inmates at Kingston Penitentiary look through the bars of the dome at the highest point of the comple after a prison uprising in April 1971. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Peter Bregg

Suffering was not confined to children, nor to the distant past. Corporal punishment continued at Kingston Penitentiary until 1972.

Prisoner Roger Caron’s 1978 autobiography Go-Boy! provides graphic detail about how prisoners were subjected to corporal punishment in Kingston Penitentiary by being whipped with leather paddles designed to inflict physical pain.

Caron was paddled on two occasions when he was 17 years old while restrained with shackles and straps. Describing this experience, he wrote:

“White searing pain exploded throughout my being and blood gushed from my lips as I struggled to stifle a scream. It was brutal and it was horrible. My whole body vibrated like a band of tempered steel and my mind filled with nightmares as I awaited the next blow.”

Such experiences are not commonly heard or acknowledged in Kingston.

A not-so-distant history

Kingston and the surrounding area has the highest concentration of active prisons in Canada: Bath, Collins Bay, Frontenac, Millhaven, Joyceville, Pittsburgh, Quinte, two Regional Treatment Centres and Henry Trail Community Correctional.

An unknown number of prisoners died at Kington Penitentiary over the years, including while in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a harsh punishment that research shows results in increased rates of self-harm and suicide among prisoners. This has been illustrated vividly in the news coverage of prisoners who have died while in solitary.

Solitary confinement was a practice throughout Kingston Penitentiary’s history, as prisoners were isolated for days, weeks, months and even years at a time. In March 2019, Ontario’s top court ruled that placing prisoners in solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” Former prisoners in Kingston have been trying to raise awareness of deaths in custody, specifically in the Prison for Women. These efforts are not acknowledged in Kingston’s prison tourism.

In the late 1990s, former prisoners came forward to claim that they had been involved as subjects in unethical scientific experiments while imprisoned in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Experiments included sensory deprivation, behavioural modification, electroshock and experimental pharmacology. In a 2006 study, the University of Alberta’s Geraint B. Osborne noted that in one sensory deprivation study, 10 penitentiary prisoners spent seven days in dark isolation cells as researchers studied the effects on desire for visual and auditory stimulation.

One prisoner began to panic after four days. Another hallucinated during the final two days, seeing spiders and the face of his dead brother.

Former prisoners in the Kingston community have been trying to bring public attention to their involvement in such experiments. None of this is acknowledged in Kingston’s prison industry.

Kingston Penitentiary was also a site of mass incarceration of Indigenous prisoners, an ongoing issue in prisons that is the subject of some of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This year’s report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women also delved into the issue in the context of women and girls. This injustice is another that’s not acknowledged in Kingston’s prison tourism industry.

Where do we go from here?

A party is coming to Kingston Penitentiary, but there’s been no conversation about whether it’s ethical to hold one.

There’s been no discussion about what it means to derive entertainment from a shuttered prison.

Similarly, there has been no discussion of what it means to raise money for the City of Kingston and a well-known charity from a prison.

We need to bring more healing, memory and awareness to tourism development in Kingston — healing for those who were harmed by prisons, memory in order to accurately commemorate the institution and awareness about how some of those painful legacies continue in prisons today.

This is a corrected version of a story originally published Sept. 3, 2019. The earlier story incorrectly included Adam Capay in a list of people who had died while in solitary confinement. Adam Capay spent four years in solitary confinement, but is now in a mental-health facility.