Artful Musing

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The horror show that was Kingston Pen

BY PAUL GESSELL

2_The Dome from above
The Dome from Above, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

The late Roger Caron became one of the most famous inmates of Kingston Penitentiary and not because he was a macabre serial killer like other residents such as Clifford Olson, Russell Williams, and Paul Bernardo.

Instead, Caron was a serial robber. But he was also a writer and won the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction in 1978 for Go Boy: Memoirs of A Life Behind Bars. In the book, Caron describes his first impressions of Kingston Penitentiary, which closed in September 30, 2013.

“Kingston Penitentiary seen through a winter blizzard was enough to strike terror into the bravest heart,” Caron wrote. “Nine acres of cement and steel perched on the very banks of Lake Ontario and buffeted by a bitter and howling wind blowing off the frozen lake. It had the appearance of a fortress: high, gray walls all around; and tall guard towers commanding each corner of the wall. Seated within, on high stools and cradling high-powered rifles, were the blue-uniformed sentinels with license to kill and maim.”

Cell decorated with Harley Davidson, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James
Cell decorated with Harley Davidson, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

Caron’s description is apt, according to a new book of hard-edged photographs taken by celebrated Toronto photo-artist Geoffrey James during the last months the federal institution was operating. The book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary: 1835-2013, from Black Dog Publishing, is filled with dozens of gritty, depressing, and very revealing photos of the architecture, inmates and guards of this infamous place. An exhibition of those photographs continues at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston until Dec. 7.

“I first entered KP at the tail end of its life,” James writes in his book of photographs. “Slated to close after being in operation for 178 years, it was a world that I wanted to experience and document before the prisoners were transferred.”

Recently vacated cell, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James
Recently vacated cell, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

James admits he was ill-prepared for the experience, his knowledge of prison based on often inaccurate Hollywood portrayals of life behind bars. But James soon figured out the place. The hopelessness of KP is found in his shots of mournful prisoner graffiti, groups of joyless prisoners idling, not just for a moment, but for lifetimes, and the old stone architecture that is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies.

The one hopeful area James found was an outdoor compound containing a teepee and a native sweat lodge.

“It is the sacred ground of the Native Brotherhood,” James writes. “There are sweats every month and quarterly changing of the season ceremonies. I attended two of the ceremonies and they were a ray of light in a bleak landscape.”

A “ray of light” perhaps, but not brilliant sunshine. The photographs of the Aboriginal men in their rituals still seem drenched in despair.

The book and photographs by James have created an important documentary record of life in Canada’s oldest and most infamous prison. It’s the kind of book that should have been shown to Roger Caron as a teenager — it just might have dissuaded him from embarking upon a life of crime.

Geoffrey James: Inside Kingston Penitentiary is at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston until Dec. 7.

Exercise yard, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James
Exercise yard, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James