Advocates renew calls to reform 'sensational' Kingston Penitentiary tours

Ricky Atkinson, a former prisoner at the Kingston Penitentiary, says the public tours aren't depicting 'the realness' of what it was like to do time in the system.

Tours don't depict 'realness' of prison life, says former inmate

A pedestrian walks their dog in front of Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont., in this file photo. Advocates are calling for prisoners' voices to be included in the public tours of the former prison. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Prisoners' advocates are calling tours at the notorious Kingston Penitentiary "a PR exercise" and say they still exclude the experiences of inmates, years after the institution reopened to the public.

The tour scripts have ignored prisoners' voices and the violent history of incarceration — instead focusing on stories like rare escapes and the notoriety around Canada's first maximum security prison, said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

"It's sensationalism," said Piché, who helped organize an online panel Thursday that discussed concerns with the tours.

"People are only getting one side of the story … There's a good chunk missing." 

Correctional Service Canada put together the tours after the Canadian government decommissioned the prison, which predated Confederation, in 2013. 

When those tours launched in 2016, Piché called them problematic and "dehumanizing".

"It was set up as a PR exercise to quell concerns about the closure, and the anger around it," Piché told CBC's All in a Day last week.

Ricky Atkinson says the institution was full of stories, and some were good. (Submitted by Ricky Atkinson)

'Should be real, timely and accurate'

Ricky Atkinson, a former prisoner at the Kingston Penitentiary who was part of last week's panel, said the tours aren't depicting "the realness" of what it was like to do time in the system.

"If you're going to convey a message to the public, the message should be real, timely and accurate," he said. "And this message isn't."

Atkinson said the institution — now operated by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission — was full of stories, and some were good. 

He recalled baseball tournaments at the prison and even a newspaper, written and run by prisoners. 

"It was one of the best newspapers of all the institutions in Canada," said Atkinson. "And we all competed against each other in a literary form." 

Signs mark the check-in location for tours of the former Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Tear prison down, says former prisoner

Atkinson said if he had his way, he would tear most of the building down.

"I would leave a part of it somewhere as a reminder to the iconic past that it had, but you don't need the whole facility to dramatize the pain and punishment that the government acted on people for 178 years."

Piché, who helped organize the online panel, said he's created handouts for people to download and take on the tours for more context on what happened there.

The handouts include reflections from a former Indigenous prisoner who talks about the role of the prison in Canada's history of colonialism. They also include stories about former women prisoners who went through strip searches and other abuse while confined there.

"There's those kinds of stories that are basically buried and not talked about," Piché said. "If they don't want to address history in its wholesome complexity and its darkness, then yeah, knock down the buildings and give the land back."

Correctional Service Canada said in an email Sunday that it's "exploring options and in discussions about the narrative" of the tours at Kingston Penitentiary with the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

The commission has not yet responded to CBC's request for comment.

With files from Alan Neal and Jessica Runciman

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