Geoffrey James and Stephen Reid bring the public into their unique experiences of the famous prison

The opening of several exhibitions in 2015 is a part of a change that the Glenbow Museum decided to undertake last year.

Inside Kingston Penitentiary is one of these, which debuted on the evening of Feb. 13, 2015, and runs until May 17, 2015, overlapping with the Oh, Canada exhibition. This was a strategic move, said the MC of the evening, to inspire the public to think of other contemporary issues happening in Canada at the same time. Oh, Canada is on until Apr. 16, 2015.

The Glenbow Museum is in the center of this city’s culture, with its purpose to share that with those who go through their doors. It shares the diversity and history of not only Calgary and Alberta, but the country as well as places around the world.

It was decided last year that the museum was to start going in a new direction. The Glenbow’s website states that the vision for the museum is for “more people to experience art and culture more often.”

Inside Kingston Penitentiary

It was 1971, the year of the infamous big riot. He was one of the members of the ‘Stopwatch Gang,’ which is what landed him into the prison. He was ignorant, and he knew that. He was young.

The design of Kingston Penitentiary was purposeful. It was built as a means of intimidation for those entering, like a castle is built as a fortress. Though as castles were built for royalty, and as a way to keep enemies out, this was a fortress to keep the enemies of society inside.

At only 20 years old and coming through those ominous, looming gates at the north of the grounds, he was now a prisoner confined to the inside of those grounds. Before that moment, he did not believe in God. But as he was taken through in those handcuffs, he knew that if there was a God out there, he had abandoned him.

The description the Glenbow Museum website provides is that the Kingston Penitentiary “was home to many of the country’s most notorious criminals from 1835 to 2013. The sprawling prison complex on Lake Ontario has been deeply entwined with Kingston’s history and civic identity, but the existing visual record is scant.”

Geoffrey James visited the notorious prison several times before the closing to document the dwellers and the atmosphere with his camera lens. According to the same website “The resulting images capture the physical setting, routines and relationships inside KP.”

The discussion of two perspectives

“Lets go to the North Gate, Stephen.”

This is how Geoffrey James starts the dialogue between him and Stephen Reid during the opening night of the exhibition.

Stephen Reid, who has been in and out of prison for most of his life, speaks about his time spent inside the prison after being a part of the ‘Stopwatch Gang.’ Along with Geoffrey James the two were speaking about the photographs he took of the prison in 2013, the year before it closed, and the corresponding essay.

The North Gate is the entrance that Reid spoke of that was so foreboding to him when he first arriving to the prison, which opened in 1835, 30 years before Canada was declared a country. But his views have changed since this initial memory, and he now has ‘a strange loyalty’ to it. While there, he explains that the inmates take ownership of the place, and it is as though the guards just work there.

The inner entrance to the compound.

Photo courtesy of Geoffrey James

His time was before all of the graffiti, broken windows and defamation of the place happened. ‘Defamation,’ he uses, because none of that would have happened during the time that he was there. It has changed since then, he says. The inmates respected it.

“I’m very sentimental about the whole place,” says Reid. “The photos that disturb me are the graffiti and the defacing of the whole place.”

These photos and many others is what James portrays in Inside Kingston Penitentiary. James and Reid discuss their thoughts of spending time inside the walls of the prison, and the impressions it made on them. It was a lively and interesting discussion, with the both of them having a humorous and respectful dialogue, understanding each other, and rarely, if ever, disagreeing with each other.

James admits that even he does not still understand everything that he documented and photographed. He believes that anyone who stepped foot into the penitentiary would come out with different accounts and experiences.

“Everyone who goes in will come out with a different report,” James explains. “I had a lot of ignorance going in.”

“So did I!” Reid admits, laughing at himself and grinning under his white moustache.

The audience members situated in chairs rising above the stage where the two were situated, with the screen showing the photos, laughed at that one.

During the discussion, the penitentiary was compared to the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The character Brooks Hatlen is an elderly inmate who gets released after 50 years in prison, and then hangs himself because he cannot adjust.

James mentions that while he was at the penitentiary, he was told of an inmate who was ‘nesting’ there, similar to Hatlen, who died the previous year. He had the ability to leave and go to another less harsh facility, but chose not to because he had been there so long and did not want to leave.

It would seem that the experience has an effect on everyone who enters.

Inside the walls

James mentions a guard that he spoke to while there, who said that things have definitely changed around the place since Reid’s time.

The graffiti, for example, ranged from poems and simple writing, to more graphic words and images such as middle fingers. There was nudity drawn, posters of nudity cars. Windows would also be broken often in the summer because of the lack of air conditioning, and then attempts at boarding them up when it got cold again with spit. It was a matter of ideology, James said, as to why they did not have air conditioning.

In a photo shown from James’ collection, there is a intimidating staircase in the middle of a large, open room, which begins wide and gets narrower as it goes higher. Comparable to the staircase depicted in the second season of TV show American Horror Story: Asylum, which invokes a chill.

The ‘Dead Man Zone’ is a line all around the inside of the walls on the grass that the inmates could not pass without being shot. Reid remembers how everybody would go as close as they could to the line, right on top of it, to get as close to the outside world as possible.

There was also the riot that happened in 1971, the year Reid first arrived.

An audience member asks Reid how he survived his time there, as well as the riot.

He answers that he did nothing during the riot. He stayed in his ‘house,’ kept his head down and did not participate.

“People ask me that, I have no idea,” Reid confesses. “I’m not stupid, I’m not violent. I lost all three fights I’ve been in.”

Geoffrey James (left) and Stephen Reid (right) discuss the photos taken by James and their personal thoughts about the now closed prison.

Photo by Ali Hardstaff

But fights happen.

CBC released an article in 2013, “Kingston Pen: 7 things to know about Canada’s notorious prison,” which describes the riot as being four days long, two inmates dying from being beaten by rioters, six guards being held as hostages, and physical damage to the building.

From the photo provided by James, the dome looks strangely similar the prison shown in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy where all the main characters come together and then escape, or even similar to the prison in The Chronicles of Riddick. Many stories winding upwards, almost like a cage looking inward.

Though the caged area is newer than when Reid was there, he tells of how there used to be a ‘keepers bell’ in the dome, and that in order to go anywhere in the prison, people had to go through the dome.

This particular part of the prison suffered substantial damage during the riot, which is stated to have resulted in more blood shed if the right people did not hear the grievances of the inmates.

Also stated in the CBC article are details throughout KP’s time about how lots of “terrorizing” from those working there, and how it was a “dumping ground for bad guards.”

The significance 

Reid believes that the system now is not how it should be. He was released last year, officially a free man for 14 months, and has been residing in Victoria, B.C. His daughter and her boyfriend were present during the discussion.

He shares that he thinks times are going into a terrible direction right now in terms of the system of punishment in the country. A warden that he spoke with recently explained to Reid that his job was to provide the inmates with as much dignity as possible each day. Which is how it should be in Reid’s mind, and not how his time was inside prison.

Once inside, Reid explains, that is enough punishment – the isolation, being away from all of society. To further mistreat is not necessary. However, humiliation and profanities from the guards is the norm he said.

Though it is a two-way street, Reid is sure to mention.

But what is entirely not acceptable in his opinion is the closing of the libraries in prisons throughout the country. If those inside can read and imagine that their world can be better, then maybe they could make it better, he shares – but not if they take away that chance and choice for the inmates.

James chose to do make multiple trips to the prison and did this project because he imagines nobody else would have captured and document its presence otherwise.

“I was always interested in prisons. First in the architecture of penitence, and foreboding,” James said.

“I was also very curious. If I weren’t a photographer, I wouldn’t get in there. If I hadn’t done it, it would be gone. History is gone.”

ahardstaff-gajda@cjournal.ca