The front gate and one of the guard towers at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont.. The federal government announced Thurs., Apr. 19, 2012 the prison will be closing.
Credits: MICHAEL LEA\THE WHIG STANDARD\QMI AGENCY
Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen is arguably one of the oldest, continuously used prisons in the world, with a grisly record of riots in 1971 and 1954 (which required the army to quell). There've been some 26 escapes in its 177-year history -- not bad, considering. Today it's "home" to some 350 inmates, with an equal number of staff who'll likely soon be out of a job.
Among its notorious inmates were James, of Black Donnellys, sentenced to be hanged in 1859; the Boyd Gang of the early 1950s; and today Russell Williams and Paul Bernardo.
I used to visit Kingston Pen throughout one summer about 20 years ago to visit the late Clifford Olson, Canada's most notorious serial killer of 11 young people.
Even then, despite additions and refurbishing, it was impossible to camouflage Kingston's aging environment.
Prisons are prisons, and all have similar metal detection security, and a feeling of claustrophobia.
Even so, I recall dining in the mess hall where the food seemed excellent -- but then I once thought army cooking was gourmet dining, so I'm a poor judge. What I remember most about Kingston was the lifelessness and depression of those inmates who were able to be outside their cells.
They moved slowly, with resignation.
Over that summer, armed with a tape recorder, I was allowed to meet Olson regularly in the visitors' area, both of us sitting at a table, no glass shield, me buying a succession of pop and candy bars for him.
Guards would stroll by, and he'd interrupt his monologue to greet them, always unwholesomely familiar, joking, asking after their families and then, when they passed, telling me how well he got on with staff.
At the time I was working on a book about him with radio talk show host Arlene Bynon. Olson was angry at her because she wouldn't come to the pen to visit, on grounds that he might get violent.
In our conversations, Olson would discuss plans for escaping. I made it clear that if he told me anything of consequence, I'd blow the whistle on him. Olson would laugh -- and switch topics.
He was also amused that I felt he should have been executed back in 1982 when he confessed to 11 murders -- and periodically would agree that if were ever freed, he'd likely kill again. He'd express remorse for those he killed, and say he never understood why he did it, because none of the kids he abused ever told on him. "So, I had no need to kill them to shut them up."
Of families who mourned their murdered kids, he'd say: "Get over it."
When the great American tort lawyer Melvin Belli made a speech in Toronto, I took him to Kingston Pen where he wanted to meet Olson.
Belli and Olson posed for a photograph. In a chapter in the book I suggested it was a case of two psychopaths meeting, one of whom was homicidal. Godzilla meets King Kong. Something like that. Two huge egos.
At Kingston, Olson seemed to have custodian staff figured out. He'd enrage them by his antics and taunts, and if they'd occasionally react inappropriately, he'd file charges against them.
Then before the hearing he'd withdraw charges -- and the guard would be so grateful he'd feel obligated to him. It was vintage Olson blackmail.
Olson died from cancer last year.
Kingston Pen has just received its death notice.
For different reasons, both left their mark on Canada. Neither will be missed.