Magazine article Anglican Journal

Weekend in Kingston: A View from the Other Side

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Weekend in Kingston: A View from the Other Side

Article excerpt

MAYBE I'M JUST a grumpy, anti-social, middle-aged crank.

Maybe my sympathies are easily skewered.

Maybe that's the easiest explanation for why I spent a long weekend locked in a cell in Canada's oldest federal dungeon, Kingston Penitentiary, in Kingston, Ont.

Unlike the 14,000 souls incarcerated in federal prisons across the country, I volunteered.

At 9 a.m. on Friday, I knocked on the door of the pillared north gate of Kingston Pen and passed the same battered wooden door that Charles Dickens did in 1842.

Dickens came to tour a prison that opened in 1835 as a model of prison reform. His father was locked in a debtor's prison and throughout his life Dickens was fascinated by the human misery he saw in penitentiaries.

What Dickens saw here was the most advanced prison architecture and system of penal discipline in the world. The prisoners were regimented in enforced silence, working in a prison factory during the day, sleeping at night in a cell not much bigger than the cell cot.

The French writer Michel Foucault observes that the idea of imprisoning people as a universal form of punishment arose in the late 1700s. It was the birth of regimentation and incarceration. It was also the time, he says, when society turned from punishing the human body with flogging, torture, and execution, to torturing the soul in prison.

So maybe I wanted to see what it felt like to punish the soul-a roundabout way to verify the existence of such a thing: If it hurts, it must exist.

I was given, for my protection, a solitary cell in a temporarily vacant range in the Regional Treatment Centre, the maximum-security psychiatric hospital inside the penitentiary. The routine of gloom and drudgery in Kingston is broken by occasional stabbings and deaths.

I would eat in this brick-lined maximum-security cell built in 1887, taking meals pushed through a slot in the bars, sleep on an iron cot, use the stainless steel toilet with a waist-high privacy screen.

I can't recall any dreams in prison, after sleeping fitfully through the night with the security light blazing in the cell. Besides, it's easier to daydream and fantasize in prison than to have dreams, as my technical advisers, the cons, tell me in letters. Sex, food and elaborate schemes for crimes and escape are the most popular daydreams.

The first evening my throat started to tighten. I felt on the verge of nausea. Groping for a reason, I thought it must be food poisoning from meals prepared by convicts in another building, which were lukewarm at best by the time they reached me. The feeling-and the paranoia-passed in an hour, so it probably wasn't the food. A guard told me that evening that he saw the typical signs of slack facial muscles and stooping shoulders in me. Normally, under those circumstances, he said he would have put me on suicide watch.

Corrections Canada had convened a world conference on prisons in Kingston, attracting representatives from 37 countries. The logic of the conference was simple: the per-capita rate of incarceration varies wildly around the globe. Why is that? Why is the Canadian rate of 130 prisoners for every 100,000 people so high among western nations?

I had more practical considerations in prison, however. …

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