THE DEMISE OF “CANADA’S ALCATRAZ”
In late 2013, and after 178 years in operation, Kingston Penitentiary in Canada closed. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, the maximum security lock-up was one of the oldest operating prisons in the world and was considered “Canada’s Alcatraz.”
Geoffrey James photographed inside Kingston during its final year in operation and in the immediate aftermath of its closure. His book Inside Kingston Penitentiary (Black Dog Publishing) was recently published
The transitional moment in which the prison operated and James photographed makes for prison photography study unlike anything I’ve come across before. James uses both B&W and color to image the architecture, daily activities, cells, common spaces, staff and prisoners.
It’s not apparent if the spaces in James’ photographs are lived in or not. Are we seeing an institution in wind-down, abandonment, stasis or half-use? In truth, all of these things, and the effect we are left with is that prison environments are wholly unnatural — people aren’t supposed to live or work in cages. And yet, a collision of behaviours, laws and controls has resulted in the construction of a man-made space to confine. James’ focus on Kingston’s 19th Century architecture and modern-day graffiti remind us of that.
I selected my favourite images from the 192-pages of Inside Kingston Penitentiary to accompany this conversation with Geoffrey James.
Scroll down for out Q&A.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about the prison.
Geoffrey James (GJ): Kingston Penitentiary (KP) had never really been documented in its 178-year history, except for press photographs of the destruction following a major riot in 1971.
The fact that it was closing gave me an opportunity to make the case for a historical document, with a university publication and exhibition. Fortunately, the warden and commissioner both realized that the day KP closed, it would become a different animal — a ruin, more or less, or a place of dark nostalgia. Eventually, approval for my project came from the Privy Council, the innermost sanctum of the government. Canada’s Corrections Service is famously closed and hermetic and, in general, prisons are the unknown element of the criminal justice system.
GJ: I have always had a curiosity about prisons, and KP is the most mysterious place of all — older than Canada, visited by Dickens, and notoriously tough. I went in without a huge amount of prior knowledge. From the responses I have had, I think a lot of people share my surprise about what I found. On one level the prison is impressive — it was built in the period of Late Georgian architecture, when there seemed to be no bad building.
GJ: Kingston was built by the prisoners, who first had to quarry the limestone. Its architectural language is highly symbolic, designed to impress and intimidate, as well as to hide what it is going on in side — no wire fences, but huge walls and a forbidding entrance.
PP: What is the prison system like in Canada?
GJ: The U.S. is a complete outlier among industrialized nations in the number of people it incarcerates. As Canada is next door, the perception is that we have a more benign system, which to some extent might be true. That said, it is clear that under the current government, prison policy is becoming noticeably more punitive in its intentions. We have had minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which surprisingly brought a response from U.S. law enforcement experts and prosecutors (and even conservative senators) saying this was ill-advised. Parole rules have been tightened and vocational training has been dropped in favor of cognitive behavior modification courses.
GJ: Even the $5.80/day that a prisoner can earn by working in the prison has been subjected to a 30-percent claw-back. At a time of falling crime rates, there has been a flurry of prison-building. There is an emphasis on “victims rights” which tend to concentrate on retribution and punishment. There is less emphasis in trying to prepare prisoners for their release. For the first time that I can remember, prison policy has become very much a partisan issue in parliament.
PP: How do Canadians think about prisons, officers and prisoners?
GJ: One of of the chaplains at KP said to me that Canadians don’t know much about what happens in prisons, and don’t care to know, which just about sums it up. There are the people who join the John Howard Society and work actively to try to improve conditions in prisons, as well as help prisoners on their release. There are the readers of the tabloid press, which often tries to paint prisons as holiday camps or “Club Feds.” In between, there is the majority of the population that tends not to pay too much heed, unless something horrific catches their attention.
PP: What sort of thing captures attention?
GJ: In Canada, we had not long ago, when a young woman named Ashley Smith ended her life while being watched on video by guards who had been ordered not to intervene, because she was always “acting out.” One of the things that some people learned from this was the widespread use of solitary confinement in Canada, though here it goes by the euphemism “administrative segregation.”
PP: What did you want to achieve with your work and the book?
GJ: I would hope that people looking at my book might be disabused of the notion that a maximum security is an easy place to be. For me, the most surprising thing were the words and images that the prisoners left on their walls, messages of anger, despair, regret and sometime also of wisdom and humor. People tell me they have been moved by these images.
PP: There’s evidence of staff in your photographs. That might sound strangely obvious but in America it is very rare that prison staff want to appear before the camera. Was that just part of your approach to capture as many angles of the prison and its people?
GJ: I tried to photograph as many aspects of prison life as I could. I was given remarkable latitude, and was always accompanied by a corrections officer. The attitude of the staff varied, as did that of the prisoners. There was sometimes a certain wariness about my presence, but I also met some outstanding and open officers.
GJ: The one requirement of the project was that I had to get a written release for every person depicted in the book. I think it significant that there was only one refusal among staff and prisoners. Not a single prisoner objected.
PP: What did the prisoners think of you and your camera?
GJ: Prisoners have a total sense of their own environment and know when there is a new species around. I found that prisoners — like the corrections officers — tend to be different on their own than when in groups. I had a difficult moment on the toughest range (or cell block) of the prison, where the prisoners had just been given a collective punishment, and decided to get back through me. Mostly, though, I took one person at a time, and learned some surprising things. I had the easiest relationship with the native prisoners, who have their own space for work and ceremonies, and who were an interesting group. They were lucky in that they had access to elders and could learn things about their heritage that they might not have had growing up.
PP: Do you have a political angle with these photographs?
GJ: It is a mistake to adopt an a priori “political” position. It is more effective to let the pictures tell the story without any rhetoric from me, although the book has a rather intricate structure that tells its own story. Or the story I wanted it to tell. I took some pains not to sensationalize the subject — I dialed back a little on the darkness that comes off those walls.
PP: You photographed Kingston Penitentiary as it closed down. Visually, I’d say there is an element of elegy. Was this intentional?
GJ: I am not sure whether the pictures are elegiac. I attempted to keep everything straightforward, neither dramatizing nor trying to make things overly emotional. But the truth is that the place has its own very strong aura. I visited the much newer maximum-security prison that many prisoners were sent to, and found it much scarier — cramped and sterile and so efficient that contact between staff and prisoners is minimized. A lot of the guards were very attached to the place. There was even one well-known prisoner who died before I started shooting who refused to leave for a lower-security institution because he considered it home. The staff refer to this as “nesting” and there seems to be a deliberate attempt not to make things comfortable in any way.
PP: Are there any particular aspects of history of Kingston Penitentiary, of which viewers should be aware?
GJ: When I researched its history, I was staggered to learn how early the problems of the institution started. Only 13 years after it opened, and a few years after Charles Dickens visited it (and found it very well administered), there was a commission of inquiry into the terrible regime of public flogging. KP had a long, troubled history.
In its closing months, there was very little in the way of rehabilitation, other than programs designed to modify cognitive behavior — programs for sexual offenders and those who had committed family violence, for example. It was interesting to me that in the 50s, the prison had its own band and on summer nights broadcast a variety show throughout the province. Now, it is all PlayStations, TV’s and boom boxes. The term that I heard over and over again from the officers was warehousing. Which pretty much sums it up.
PP: Thanks, Geoffrey.
GJ: Thank you, Pete.
All images: Geoffrey James.