During its 178-year-long history, most Canadians knew Kingston Penitentiary only by reputation. Often referred to as Canada’s Alcatraz, the Ontario maximum-security prison housed around 400 of the country’s most dangerous criminals, and was known for its historically harsh treatment of inmates. But while stories often came out of the prison over the years, there were few images to help illustrate what life was like there.
“There were old propaganda photos, some standard pictures from years and years ago. After the riot in 1971, photographers came in to photograph the mayhem,” said Geoffrey James, who was given unprecedented access to photograph the prison for his book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary. “This is the only record of the place as an institution.”
In 2013, the federal government closed Kingston, citing a desire to cut costs by transferring inmates there to nearby facilities. During the last six months of its operation, James visited the prison several times to make photos of the ancient institution’s notorious halls, as well as its staff and residents.
“In 2012, I read in the paper the prison was closing. I knew it had been there forever,” he said. “I felt it had to be photographed as a living institution before it closed. Against all odds they let me in.”
Generally, the inmates James encountered were not as enthused as he was about the project. While James eventually got to know a few of them, most were not willing to be photographed. Rather than try to present an intimate look at the individuals within its walls, James sought to produce a broader look at the institution as a whole.
Initially, he shot exclusively in black and white, but eventually he also started experimenting with color. Accompanied by a prison liaison at all times, James mostly focused on the building’s architecture, including its cells, public spaces and the tiny details that showed it was a place that people called home.
Though James photographed up until the very end—he even got to photograph inside the prisoners’ cells just hours after they left them for the last time—he found throughout the project that he couldn’t handle more than three days in a row at the prison.
“I found the whole thing very dark,” he said. “I’d never been in that sort of environment. I got to understand it more and got to know a few of the inmates and the guards, but I didn’t find a lot of redemption there.”