Kingston Penitentiary tours problematic, argues criminology prof

An Ottawa criminologist says he worries public tours of the notorious Kingston Penitentiary will gloss over lingering issues of incarceration and dehumanize inmates.

Justin Piché says these new tours could 'dehumanize' inmates

A pedestrian walks their dog in front of Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. The notorious prison, which closed in 2013 after nearly 180 years of operation, opened up to tourists on Thursday. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

An Ottawa criminologist says he worries public tours of the notorious Kingston Penitentiary will gloss over lingering issues of incarceration and dehumanize inmates.

The former maximum-security penitentiary opened its doors yesterday for public tours.

In an op-ed published earlier this week in the Toronto Star, Justin Piché — an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa — argued prison museums often glorify exceptional prison incidents, such as escapes, and don't focus on harsh realities inmates faced.

A look inside the Kingston Pen in 1981

6 years ago
Duration 0:37
As the notorious former Kingston Penitentiary is set to open up for public tours in June, we take a look at archival footage from inside the prison more than 30 years ago.

Piché said that's usually because it's former staff who help with the curation, not inmates.

"You get their take on things. You know, narratives of sacrifice, of doing the necessary public safety bit for Canadias. You rarely get to hear from the perspective of prisoners of what it was like to be confined there," he told CBC Radio's All in a Day host Alan Neal.

"You have a dehumanization on one side and a humanization on the other which can then produce distance. It feeds into that us versus them mentality."

Inmate stories sidelined

Piché said it might help tourists to understand what the stark conditions were like if they could hear stories from former inmates.

"[The Kingston Penitentiary is] certainly historically significant. It certainly needs to be commemorated in some way. If they are going to be doing tours I think it's just important to make sure there are different perspectives in there."

Including stories from inmates would help employ people, he said.

"It's not like ... they would trying to make profits off, say, what was done with respects to those they had harmed," he argued. "They would be drawing a living based on the punishment aspect of what they had experienced."

It's not the first time the prison has been opened to the public. The penitentiary had previously offered tours on a limited basis in 2014 in a fundraising campaign for Habitat for Humanity and the United Way.

Hopes tours link history with present

Piché said those tours were "a missed opportunity to talk about the harms of incarceration" and he worries it will happen again with the new round of tours.

While he's not sure what the new tours will actually look like, Piché said he worries tourists will think prisons are "an artifact of how we used to do things and now we've moved on."

A segregation cell is shown in the Kingston Pen. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Piché also said the 2014 tours didn't acknowledge some modern-day issues in the penitentiary system, including how more than a quarter of inmates in Canadian prisons are Aboriginal.

"Brutality behind bars continues to happen," he said. "I think it's an ethical obligation to think, 'OK, this is what happened here. How could things have been different? How can the future be otherwise?'"

Colloquially known as KP, the Kingston Penitentiary closed in 2013 after nearly 180 years in operation.

Its inmates have included some of the country's most notorious convicts, such as former child killer Clifford Olson and murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo.

The 2016 tourism project is being jointly run by the Correctional Services of Canada, the city of Kingston and the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, which will serve as the official penitentiary tour operator.

Part of the proceeds from the tours will go to youth initiatives in eastern Ontario, as well as local tourism and marketing initiatives, the city said in a press release.

Fires and rioting damage Kingston Penitentiary in 1954

3 years ago
Duration 2:24
Two-thirds of the aging federal prison in Ontario is destroyed after a riot and fires break out.