When I was still a student, considering a career in journalism, I toured, as part of a course in criminology, an ancient jail in Halifax, Rock Head Prison, long ago demolished.

At the time, I would have been shocked to think that, over the next five decades, penitentiaries would rank among my most enduring memories.

From B.C.'s William Head on the shores of the Pacific, to Dorchester and Springhill in the Maritimes and the sinister Ellis Unit (death row) in Texas, I've "done time" in all of them and many others in between.

Mercifully, short time — but always long enough to leave indelible impressions of images and sounds, and people.

Watch the fifth estate documentary "Kingston Pen: Secrets and Lies" on Friday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m., 9:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Recently, when I heard that Kingston Pen would close within the next two years, some of the most vivid memories and feelings were reactivated.

I think I first visited Kingston Pen in 1992 while working on a story for the fifth estate that would challenge the guilty verdict that sent Guy Paul Morin there to start serving a life sentence.

I vividly remember a grim, dim place of heavy-bolted wooden doors, daunting locking mechanisms, steel bars and grilles and razor wire amid the concrete and stone.

It was a place that, in spite of modernization and refurbishment, still reflected the public morality and social views regarding crime and punishment of the early 19th century.

Rigid codes

When I met him there, Guy Paul Morin was dazed and afraid. He had entered a world of rigid codes and norms where his safety was profoundly and permanently compromised by his status as the convicted killer of a child.


The CBC's Linden MacIntyre visiting one of Kingston's ranges. A hellish place to have to live. (CBC)

It was a world in which the wrong facial expression, the wrong word uttered to the wrong person could lead to injury or death. Morin was also, as we were beginning to discover (and, mercifully for him, it was a view already widely held among the other convicts) innocent. He would later be released and exonerated.

Another inmate, Tyrone Conn, who had become a friend, ended up in Kingston Pen for dramatically different reasons. And for those who didn't know those reasons he had the status of a star.

While child killers and pedophiles are at the bottom of the prison food chain, Ty Conn was at the top — a serial bank robber who had broken out of prisons, including formidable Collins Bay, during many years in the system.

He ended up in Kingston Pen because, while serving time in nearby Millhaven Institution, he had broken a fundamental convict rule — he had exposed an impending and potentially violent escape attempt.

His reward was indefinite confinement in KP, an injustice that embittered him and drove him to despair of ever getting out of there.

However, in May of 1999 he became the first inmate in 40 years to escape from Kingston by a very simple and ingeniously executed plan: he built a ladder and climbed over a wall.

He was instantly notorious and famous but in two weeks he would be dead: he accidentally shot himself after police surrounded his Toronto hideout and while talking on the phone with a producer from the fifth estate, Theresa Burke, who had also become his friend. 

A complicated anthropology

The news that Kingston Pen will close by 2014 stirs contradictory emotions. It is a hellish place to have to live. But it has a unique purpose in a highly complex world.

It has 12 noisy, stark and grimy ranges that provide spartan housing for more than 400 of the most difficult prisoners in the country, and a special facility that confines and tries to treat more than 100 inmates who are mentally ill.

Few if any of the KP inmates are what we might consider "normal". They include the so-called stars of the national corrections scene: Hamid and Mohammad Shafia, Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo.

Think of someone at the centre of the most lurid crime story in recent memory and chances are he's ended up at KP.

Prisons are supposed to be, in the academic theories and the mission statements, places of penitence and rehabilitation.

They rarely are. Prisons are mainly for confinement of individuals in the name of public safety.

Kingston Pen, over the decades, has evolved a highly specialized purpose in the confinement system, a complex layering of options — dissociation, segregation, protective custody, asylum for the emotionally dysfunctional — and it is about to be dismantled.

In the next two years, more than 500 of the most challenging inmates in the system will have to be integrated into existing institutions almost all of which are already overcrowded.

Canada's new law-and-order culture has increased the prison population significantly in the past four years.

There is also stark evidence of increased tension and violence in the system, illustrated by the fact that lockdowns and extraordinary searches for weapons, drugs and other contraband have increased by 38 per cent over the same period.

At the moment, there are no plans for new facilities. So the proposed solution is to cram 2,700 new cells into 30 existing and already over-crowded institutions.

Now, many of those cells and an already volatile inmate population will have to accommodate the complicated anthropology that has been Kingston Pen.

The union representing prison guards anticipates chaos and heightened risk for both staff and inmates. And the national corrections ombudsman, Howard Sapers, shares many of their concerns.

KP is a special place, full of troubled people with many unique needs. They will not easily be accommodated in an already stressed-out system.

Prisons rarely come close to the ideal of returning offenders to the street as improved and motivated citizens. But the least we should expect is that they should not become a place from which offenders come out worse than when they first went in.