Geoffrey James: Inside Kingston Penitentiary


© Geoffrey James

When he heard in 2012 that the notorious Kingston Penitentiary was due to close after 178 years, photographer Geoffrey James approached Jan Allen, Curator of Kingston’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre, about creating a photographic record of the facility. The result was an exhibition and James’ recent book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary 18352013 — a surprisingly moving pictorial look at Canada’s oldest penal institution.

Although James — whose work is well represented in the National Gallery collection — was granted access to the prison while it still housed inmates, one of the most striking things about the book’s images is a relative lack of people. A photographic essay on a maximum-security prison usually means myriad photographs of violent offenders and hard-faced guards. Instead, James has depicted the cells, offices, corridors and open areas of Kingston Penitentiary as being virtually devoid of human life — as though humanity had long since fled the precinct.

One of the things I found most surprising about some images was how inmates had decorated their cells. One cell is sponge-painted on every available surface.  Two others feature walls of bright colour and vibrant graphics. Others include blank verse and other musings. Many feature carefully cut-out pictures from girlie magazines.

Some also stake out territory. A doorway has the word “Nunavut” emblazoned above it. Another declares “This is Indian land.” A small Israeli flag is tacked to a wall. A defiant yet off-kilter “FLQ” is skritched into the lower portion of a metal door. All attest, perhaps, to a desire for place, for meaning, for proof of life.

As James notes in his brief but elegant essay, “Prison Notes,” Kingston Penitentiary dates from the late Georgian period in both architecture and ethos. Modelled on the Auburn system developed for a New York prison in the 1820s, in its first couple of years, Kingston Penitentiary was actually a model institution. Visited by Charles Dickens, who had a particular interest in prisons, Kingston Pen was described by the author as “an admirable jail, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every aspect.”

It wasn’t to last. Within a decade or so, Kingston had succumbed to the same slate of punishments as any other prison of its time. Prisoners were lashed, beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and subjected to something called a “shower-bath,” which involved placing the prisoner’s head in a box, then adding a barrel of ice-cold water. More than one prisoner died as a result.

Although James’ primarily black-and-white photographs tend to be dark, low-contrast, and rather grim, there are also moments of wry humour. A room holding confiscated items features a trio of stuffed animals, including a bear called “Cindy.” An inmate has fashioned a cushioned toilet seat from jeans and orange jersey. A note lying on a bunk politely asks the viewer to “Please F—— O—.”

James treats his subject matter with unwavering respect. It is a way of working that was also on full display in the 2008 National Gallery exhibition of James’ work, Utopia/Dystopia: The Photographs of Geoffrey James. In Inside Kingston Penitentiary, there are no images of violent or disturbed individuals; the buildings are often made beautiful; and even in the unhappy writings of inmates on the prison walls, there is a kind of dignity that James allows to speak for itself.

One of the more interesting sequences in the book depicts an inmate-run sweat lodge. The sequence begins with a colour image of the lodge — in full-sized tipi form — set incongruously inside a chain-link fence. What follows is a series of black-and-white images from inside the sweat lodge, to which James was graciously invited. In his essay, James describes the jovial Elder, Dan Ross, and remarks upon a young inmate who quoted Virgil and Quintilian and asked James how to pronounce Aeneid, since he’d never heard it said out loud.

Strangely, the lack of humans in a photographic essay about a functioning (at the time) prison works quite well. Prisons aren’t meant to celebrate human behaviour, individuality or eccentricity, but rather to stamp it out. Although James visited Kingston Penitentiary while it still housed inmates, his images suggest a place from which meaning has already fled, leaving behind a shell that keeps its secrets still.

There have been various suggestions about what to do with the Kingston site, from a fancy marina to condos. For now, Kingston Penitentiary houses the Correctional Service of Canada Museum, and will serve as a repository for Corrections Canada records for a number of years to come.

As James notes in his essay, “the Catholic Church of the Good Thief, down the road from the penitentiary and built with stone quarried by inmates, closed at the same time, deemed like K[ingston] P[enitentiary] to have outlived its usefulness.” In an age of high-tech “supermax” institutions, and new ways of housing, treating and retraining prisoners, Kingston Penitentiary has become both an architectural and sociologial anachronism — but one that James has done a stellar job of capturing before it is gone forever.

Inside Kingston Penitentiary 1835–2013 (Black Dog Publishing, London, England, 2014) includes more than 110 b/w and colour images, as well as essays by both Geoffrey James and Jan Allen, and is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore. To view works by Geoffrey James in the National Gallery collection, please click here

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