Kingston Penitentiary: The First Hundred and Fifty Years 1835-1985


173 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-660-11823-8




Edited by Dennis Curtis and others
Reviewed by Patricia Vervoort

Patricia Vervoort is an assistant professor of art history at Lakehead


Aiming to present the highlights of the first 150 years from the story of Kingston Penitentiary, this volume, in text and pictures, gives a lively introduction to crime, punishment, and politics in early Canada. Pictures in sepia accompany the text throughout, and a color photo essay depicts the penitentiary today. The authors — Dennis Curtis, Andrew Graham (former warden), and Lou Kelly — are employees of Connectional Services of Canada; Anthony Patterson, a journalist, revised and edited the manuscript.

The introduction and chapter one deal with the origin of the penitentiary idea and the construction of Kingston Penitentiary. Chapters two and three cover the term of the first warden, Henry Smith, and the first public inquiry which led to his dismissal. Chapters four and five discuss the situation of “criminal lunatics” the reformation of prisoners, and the purposes of hard labor. Chapter six concerns the relationship of the penitentiary with the community of Kingston. “Women in the Penitentiary” is the theme of chapter seven, which includes not only inmates and matrons but also the new warden appointed in 1984, Mary Dawson. Chapter eight is about the routine inside the walls. Escapes and riots are the topics found in chapters nine and ten. Chapter eleven concerns the new role of Kingston Penitentiary as a reception centre for processing and classifying inmates. An Epilogue is followed by a section called “Names and Numbers,” with lists of wardens, an honor role of staff who lost their lives while on duty, cabinet ministers responsible, a menu from the 1880s, and an excerpt from a warden’s diary, identified only as from 1847 (Henry Smith).

There is a marked unevenness to the text. While stressing that this book is intended to be an overview and not a complete history, the emphasis is definitely on the early years and today. What happened during the intervening years is omitted. The issue of women is covered, but children are not as thoroughly treated. Some young children were imprisoned in the early years and suffered constant punishment for their inability to follow the rules of silence, but it is not noted just when children were removed from the adult penitentiary. The illustrations in sepia give a uniformity to drawings, photographs, and documents reproduced in the text; not all the documents are legible and, as most are labeled, the few that are not leave the reader puzzled (for instance, on page 31, a photograph of various pairs of scissors presumably relates to the text on medical doctors). This volume is most successful in dealing with the early days of Kingston Penitentiary; for the rest of the 150 years mentioned in the title, perhaps another volume will be forthcoming.


“Kingston Penitentiary: The First Hundred and Fifty Years 1835-1985,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,