Photography

Time Served

Geoffrey James photographs the final chapter of Canada’s most notorious prison, Kingston Penitentiary

Photograph by Geoffrey JamesPhotography by Geoffrey James

Opened in 1835, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario is a model of old-school incarceration: the Doric columns at the gatehouse, the grand stone archways and staircases, the bell tower, the cells with barred doors that face inward into open wards.

“It is an architecture of powerful symbolism that we don’t build anymore,” says Canadian photographer Geoffrey James. “It’s supposed to be imposing and serious.”

In 1971, inmates rioted for four days, one of the most violent events in the prison’s history, over plans to relocate them. The new Millhaven Institution, in nearby Bath, was to gradually replace KP as the province’s principal maximum-security facility. “But Millhaven’s worse,” James says. “The ranges are like motel corridors. It’s a terrible place.” Last year, the remaining inmates were transferred without incident, though some didn’t want to leave.

When its gates shut for the final time in September 2013, Kingston Penitentiary was among North America’s oldest operating prisons. Notorious killers—Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Russell Williams—slept in its cells and exercised in its yards, but James didn’t focus on the lives and personal effects of infamous inmates.

“My whole thing was predicated on privacy,” the former Time magazine reporter turned photographer explains. “Nobody was identified. The inmates all had to sign releases; it took months to get permissions. But I had to get that clear: This isn’t about any of the sensational stuff. It’s about prison life, an institutional historical record, and the physical space.

“An empty space invites you in. If you have people, you always have to deal with anecdote and incident.”

James talked with dozens of inmates—some were open to converse, others were hostile—but during his scores of visits he was most troubled by the relationship between prisoners and correctional officers. The training course for a federal prison guard is typically around four months: “And it shows,” says James.

“Inmates are human beings with human aspirations. And most of them are going to be released. You reap what you sow. If you treat people like nothing, you’re going to get nothing back.”

This visual essay draws from the 100-plus images in James’s forthcoming book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary (1835–2013), due out in October.

Photograph by Geoffrey James
Kingston Penitentiary as seen from across the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, where the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics held its sailing events.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
The prison’s central hub, known as the dome.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Inmates pass through checkpoints and screenings.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
A correctional officer oversees segregation cells.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Vacated cells of Lower E block.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Harley-Davidson wall art at left; bunks at right.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
A toilet seat cover stitched together from jeans and a blanket.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Cell mural by an Inuit inmate.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
A family visiting unit.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Referring to the part of his day spent in the metal shop, one prisoner said, “I don’t feel like an inmate here.”
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Drop-off location for borrowed books. Top left: an absorption pad for warning shots fired during disturbances.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
In 2008, the estimated HIV prevalence rate among federal prisoners was 1.6 percent for men and 4.7 percent for women.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
“B. J Chance…‘Silent Bob,’ ” reads a handmade advertisement for sexual services.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Segregation cell with a concrete bed for violent offenders.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Exercise yard for segregated inmates.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
The prison’s Aboriginal ground.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Change of seasons ceremony.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Cell mural with calendar marking inmate’s release date.
Photograph by Geoffrey James
Originally named the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada, Kingston Penitentiary closed on September 30, 2013.

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.

Harley Rustad (@hmrustad) is an editor at The Walrus.

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