Closing “The Pen”

I’ve been thinking about the closure of the Kingston Penitentiary. (For a news report, go here.  

In another life, I was a lawyer and on rare occasions had clients in the Pen. (Your criminality had to achieve a certain level of seriousness before you rated time in the Pen; most of my clients didn’t sink that low or, as you may prefer to think of it, rate that high.)  Kingston was an odd city; its primary features were a long and glorious history in the battles against invading Americans, an exceptionally beautiful harbour,  and the Pen.  Driving out or, better yet, taking the train was a strangely exhilarating experience, with the beautiful and prosperous countryside north of the lake rolling by.

The Pen itself was the opposite of exhilarating.  No one who has not been inside a prison can imagine how psychologically disturbing they are, even for visitors.  The Pen especially, with its massive stone construction, its watchtowers, and its internal array of iron gates, was depressing, intimidating, horrifying–all as intended.  As you advanced into the prison, stopped and bottlenecked again and again, waiting to be cleared from one area to the next, your sense of autonomy drained away and you felt yourself being herded, animal-like, from one pen to the next.

And then there was the stench.  Jails smell; it is a stink that is seemingly unavoidable when you have hundreds of men cooped up in close confines, sharing toilets, and limited in their access to washing facilities.  Even in winter, it would take me a long walk in the crisp air before the world smelled clean again.  In the summer, the smell was even higher and lingered longer.  And I, of course, was only in the jail for a few hours at a time at most, not confined there for months or years.  Theoretically, you are supposed to stop smelling almost anything after a little while, as your olfactory sense gets fatigued and shuts off.  That was not my experience when visiting the pen.

I have always been on the side of the defence.  I suppose I was warped in my youth by the Yom Kippur prayers in which we say, “Hush to the prosecutor!  Let the defender speak.”  But as a result, I have never wanted to be responsible for prosecuting anyone for anything.  But even without my natural leftist bent or the Jewish tradition of support for the defenceless, I like to think that my first visit to any jail would have convinced me that no one should be condemned there without every possible defence having been expressed. Goodbye to the Pen and good riddance.



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