Kingston Penitentiary opens to tourists

The front gate at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. (MICHAEL LEA/QMI AGENCY)

The front gate at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. (MICHAEL LEA/QMI AGENCY)

Elliot Ferguson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:11 PM ET

KINGSTON, Ont. — Former warden Monty Bourke led about 600 people Wednesday through what, until this week, was the oldest prison in Canada and home to some of the most infamous criminals in the country.

Bourke pointed to the second-floor window overlooking the recreation yard at Kingston Penitentiary.

“That's where I read the Riot Act,” he said, describing how an inmate revolt in the late 1990s was ended.

When inmates refused to return to their cells and prison guards exhausted the supply of tear gas, the situation ended after Bourke read aloud a few lines from the Criminal Code.

Bourke, who was warden of the Pen for five years and is now president of the Friends of the Penitentiary Museum, was among the former prison staff who led Wednesday's tour.

He said the tours are a chance to go into what is now a very different Kingston Penitentiary.

“What's missing is the heartbeat — the heartbeat of the prison,” he said. “The mechanics are still there, the bricks and mortar are still there, the posts are still there. What's missing is the pace, the heartbeat, the breath of the prison inside.”

More than 9,000 people have signed up for the sold-out tours, which will help raise money for the United Way, a charity that addresses poverty and homelessness.

“They are loving it, right from the first tour,” said Bhavana Varma, CEO and president of United Way for Kingston, Frontenac Lennox Addington. “They said it was fascinating, they had a great time.”

In the next three weeks, 9,400 people who paid $20 each to tour the facility will add about $188,000 to the charity's annual campaign.

For some, the 90-minute tour was not long enough.

“I though seeing the cells was really interesting, but I felt we were really limited,” said Kayla Cheetham, 19, who went on the tour with her mother Michelle and sister Sierra, 8.

Kayla Cheetham, a student considering a career in corrections, had one complaint — she didn't get to see killer Paul Bernardo's cell.

A morbid curiosity with the prison's inmates, 95% of whom were imprisoned for serious crimes against other people, was likely behind much of the interest in the tours.

“My expectation was just to see the architecture more than anything else in here,” said Jim Boyce, who toured the prison Wednesday. “But of course, as everyone, there is probably a shameful interest in some of the more high-profile convicts in there.”