Time Travel Commence…(Kingston Penitentiary Project) by Jessica Knapp

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woosh… woosh …woshhh …bleep… bop….

Welcome to Upper Canada in 1833.

You are in Portsmouth, where the mouth of the port is just off Lake Ontario. And just around the corner Kingston is a developing city. The criminals are out of hand in Upper Canada, and there is a cholera out break. What are you focused on? Keeping yourself and family healthy or the construction of the brand new institution to house the countries criminals? More than likely you were concerned with your family, and for good reason. But while you were focused, Kingston Penitentiary was being planned and built. William Powers has  traveled from his work with the Auburn Prison in New York to develop a plan for Kingston Penitentiary.

To explain this experience I have designed the original structure of Kingston Penitentiary in a 3D model with a program called SketchUp. Below on the left hand side is the plan for the 1895 layout of KP drawn by James Adam, on the right hand side is an aerial view of my SketchUp model.


Note: The 3D model is based off sources ranging from 1833 to 1895 which is prior to any major construction or additions. Also, this model is placed on a 2012 Google maps image of the current location of KP.

For Kingstonians the building of KP was invisible and it maintained a facade behind the North Lodge after it was built by 1835. The public view it was of the North Lodge, the front gate, which represented the entire institution. The public remained aloof to the original design and the operations. After the plan was accepted the construction began with builders but was quickly handed over to the inmates. Responsible for the harvesting of the limestone from the local quarry and the actual construction of KP, the inmates had an intimate relationship with the building.

In KP there was one major rule to follow: Silence. At all times inmates were to be silent, but also not allowed to look at each other, stare, laugh, or make sudden or harsh movements. The rule of silence was to enforce and to encourage self-reflection. A civil attempt at rehabilitation. Beyond the silence inmates at KP faced severe punishments like the isolation cells and being whipped with cattails.


The motions of the guards and inmates were controlled by the bell. Located in the center of the Main Dome, the bell was used to signal the beginning and end of all activities. “[It] became a symbol of oppression and regimentation to the inmates.”[1]


The original structure held five tiers of cells, with 27 cells in each corridor, 54 cells each floor of each wing, 270 cells a wing.[2] The cell dimensions were eight feet four inches by three feet six inches.[3] The measurements for the cell window and door were included as well.[4] The cells were set back into the wall to prevent communication between inmates. The design and function of the windows on the exterior of the building were pertinent to the heating and cooling of KP: “When the convicts are to be taken out of their cells in the morning, the outer windows must be raised to ventilate the whole interior…the exterior windows must be closed a little before night, and in cold weather fire must be put into the stoves to warm the building before convicts go into their cells.”[5] KP’s design was influenced by the Auburn Prison, but it is with the cell windows that designs differ. KP’s window system for heat, light, and ventilation was used throughout Canada’s penitentiaries.


The foundation of this structure survived into the 20th century when photographs were taken, but it is through drawings and sketches that the intimate details were noticed.  By recreating the original structure, those who have only heard of the KP’s reputation or the fortunate who have toured the 21stcentury edition of KP will now have the opportunity to explore the roots of this institution and the other prisons built in Upper Canada during the century. The value of KP was recognized in 1991 when it was acknowledged as a National heritage site, but the value of the original structure is noted in this model as it allows scholars and the public to analyse and discover the experiences of not only a 19th century convict, but guards, wardens, and the city inhabitants. Kingstonians have always had KP in their backyard, but between its construction in 1833 and its present-day closure in 2013 it has remained under the façade of the North Lodge, until now.

Presently, tours of KP are being held by various organizations and charities. If you have good timing and are lucky enough to have experienced what KP is today please share! Also, if you would like to see this model as an interactive experience please leave you thoughts below, and in good time I am sure it will happen.
For now if you would like to know more about the history of Kingston Penitentiary check out this video from CBC!
You can visit Jessica Knapp’s personal blog by clicking here.

[1] Denis Curtis et al., Kingston Penitentiary: The first Hundred and Fifty Years, 1835-1985 (Ottawa: The Correctional Service of Canada, 1985, 97.

[2] John Macaulay et al., “Report Of the commissioners appointed to superintend the erection of a Penitentiary in Kingston,” (Kingston: 1833),  2.

[3] The width of the cell is not recorded, but by knowing there are 27 cells within a corridor at 90’ 4” the appropriate cell width would be about 3’ 6”

[4] The window dimensions were 3’ by 20” and the door was 6’ 1” by 20”.

[5] John Macaulay et al., “Report Of the commissioners appointed to superintend the erection of a Penitentiary in Kingston,” (Kingston: 1833), 2.


 Curtis, Denis et al. Kingston Penitentiary: The first Hundred and Fifty Years, 1835-1985. Ottawa: The Correctional Service of Canada, 1985.

Edmison, J. A. “The History of Kingston Penitentiary.” In Historic Kingston: Being the Transactions of the Kingston Historical Society for 1953-54.Kingston: 1954.

Johnson, Dana. “Kingston Penitentiary, King Street West, Kingston, Ontario.” Building Report #89-32. Ottawa: Federal Heritage Building Review Office,1991.

Macaulay, John et al. “Report Of the commissioners appointed to superintend the erection of a Penitentiary in Kingston.” Kingston: 1833.


The following are from “Kingston Penitentiary, King Street West, Kingston, Ontario.” Building Report #89-32. Ottawa: Federal Heritage Building Review Office, 1991.

Adams, James. Ground floor plan of the main cellblock in 1895, prepared by James Adams. Kingston: 1895.

Adams, James. Side elevation of the proposed extension of the south wing, prepared in 1895 by James Adams, architect. Kingston: 1895

North elevation of the dining room wing of the main cellblock, ca. 1895

 North elevation of the hospital wing, from the northwest, ca. 1895. Kingston: 1895.

Kingston Penitentiary, view of the north elevation of the main cellblock from the roof of the warden’s residence, ca. 1900. Kingston: 1900.

Main cellblock, north elevation from the northeast, ca. 1895. Kingston: 1895.

Main cellblock from the north, ca. 1895, showing the entrance to the former administrative wing. Kingston: 1895.

Main cellblock, south elevation from the southeast. Kingston: 5 July 1873.


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