Weekend in Kingston

Published September 1, 1998

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. I paced my cell, 13 toe-to-heel paces by nine. I looked through the bars. Nothing there but more walls. I wondered whether the guard would be early or late with meals that no longer interested me. I had to be wakened out of a deep nap on Saturday when the meal came at the regular dinner hour of 3:30 p.m. I wondered what to do for the rest of the day.

I’d taken off my watch, following advice from my chief technical adviser, Greg McMaster. Mr. McMaster, serving life for murder in Collins Bay penitentiary, is an expert on solitary confinement after spending four years in “the hole” in U.S. prisons. He insisted that I discard abstract clock time and live according to the rhythms of the institution. He was right. Before long, time didn’t matter. I had no goals, the decisions were made by the guards, so time wasn’t relevant.

In Kingston, I felt egoistical rather than humbled and compassionate, preferring my cell to idle chatter with the guards and a book I wasn’t enjoying to thoughts about my wife and children. I didn’t see the prisoner brought in who tried to commit suicide, and I didn’t care. I didn’t know the man; besides, only successful suicide attempts get recognition.

I’d been warned about the chill of prison egoism and the effects of isolation by the cons.

A bank robber, Steve Pang, serving 10 years, wrote me from the Bath penitentiary near Kingston, with advice on handling the isolation. Detach yourself from outside connections, he said, or you’ll feel lonely and despondent; be a chameleon; do your time quietly and don’t attract attention. The men with strong family connections sometimes suffer the most in prison. I get letters from men who have committed horrific crimes who cry about being separated from their children.

In the cell I was thinking about a bizarre murder trial and sanity hearing for a 48-year-old woman. The psychiatrists were debating whether Theresa Anne Glaremin is criminally insane or just a pathological liar. I recalled her saying on the stand how much she missed in prison the sea, the air and the tides of her home town, Felix Cove, Newfoundland.

Whether she is sane, as the jury decided, or insane, whether she was abused sexually as a child or it’s a lie she invented, it’s a fact she murdered two women, assaulted one of four husbands with a meat cleaver and chased her daughter with an axe. Yet, in this sick and murderous personality, now sentenced to life in prison for 25 years, people have seen times of love and compassion.

I doubt anybody feigns nostalgia for the sea. I recalled her comment about the tides from my cell. Through a slit in the open window came the electric buzz of crickets. Crickets are wonderful – small, durable things that sing their hearts out. It’s no wonder they’ve been taken to symbolize the soul. The crickets were my sea and tide in an experience I’m not sure I understand.

As for whether Foucault is right, that prison is a punishment of the soul, you figure it out. I’m just a grumpy, middle-aged crank with a watch strapped to his wrist. Shawn Thompson is an Anglican living in Gananoque, Ont., who is writing a book about incarceration by corresponding with prisoners.


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