Jail Time

No, I didn’t break the 11th Commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Get Caught”.

This past weekend was Doors Open Toronto, a popular event when participating organizations open their doors to the public for tours.  I had time to visit only one location this weekend, so I chose the former Don Jail.

The Don Jail is one of the most popular destinations during the Doors Open event and visitors are allowed only 30 minutes inside for a self-guided tour.  Although I arrived shortly after it opened, there was already a line-up waiting outside.

Before entering the building, each visitor was given a sticker to be worn with the stated time they had to leave.  I used each of my precious minutes.

Don Jail 2

The Don Jail was opened in 1864 and in its final years (dare I say, decades?) of operation, it was considered an embarrassment for its overcrowding and “deplorable” conditions. It was famously noted by one judge in 2003 “that the prison failed to meet the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners set by the United Nations”.

After a significant refurbishment, today the historic Don Jail serves as administrative offices for the next door Bridgepoint Health Centre.

Don Jail

The Don Jail was a “holding tank” for defendants waiting for trail, some of whom could be held in the facility for months.

Volumes have been written over the years about the jail.  It’s not my intention to dwell on its history or various horror stories, but I think the pictures speak volumes on their own.

Don Jail 2-3

This section of cells was boarded up and the doors removed

Each cell was barely more than the width of the door and could accommodate only a single cot, or usually a double bunk.  With no toilet facilities, the inmates had only a bucket during night lockup.  During the day, they were kept in common areas.

I should mention that this building is the historic “old” Don Jail, which was closed in 1977. The newer section of the jail was built at the end of the 1950s and didn’t close until 2014.  The new section at least had toilet facilities within the cells.  In spite of that, it was said that there was a perpetual smell of sweat and human waste which permeated the jail.

The 1864 building has some interesting details.  Like the wrought-iron supports under the wooden balconies.  Each support is either a serpent or a dragon.

Don Jail-2

I can only guess what the intention was to incorporate serpents and dragons into the interior.  Dramatic impact, perhaps?

Don Jail 3

Sorry for some of the terrible images – it was sometimes quite difficult to take photos with the crowds and poor lighting.

Don Jail 2-5

Then there is the Gallows.  It is one area of the old jail which remains largely unchanged by the renovations that occurred.

Over thirty people have been executed at the Don Jail since it opened.  The final two hangings in Canada occurred here in 1962, and capital punishment was ultimately abolished in 1976.

All that remains is a shadow on each of the walls which supported the platform and the large overhead beam.  A railing protects the visitor today from the drop to the floor below.

Don Jail-3

Witnesses to an execution descended to the floor beneath the scaffold using a staircase off to the left of the Gallows.  We were not allowed to go downstairs.

I simply don’t understand the purpose of the door *floating* to the left of the staircase.  It leads to the outer corridor.

Don Jail 2-4

Over the years I have managed to visit several prisons in different countries.  It would be quite accurate to suggest I have a fascination with them, but one thing remains absolutely clear … I don’t ever want to spend time in one, except as a visitor.

Don Jail 2-2

 

About Joanne Sisco

Retired but not idle. Life is an adventure - I plan to continue to embrace it.
This entry was posted in Around Toronto, history, Random Stuff and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

85 Responses to Jail Time

  1. Thanks for the tour. I would not want to tour that at night. It definitely has to be haunted.

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  2. Debbie H says:

    What a great fascination you have Joanne! As you probably know I worked in a gaol/jail for 22 years and have also visited lots of them all over the world. We’ve just pent 2 weeks in Tasmania which started out its European life as a Penal Colony and there are remnants of that life all over the place. It was very interesting to say the least. I really enjoyed your visit. Thanks.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      oooo – good point. Jail life would be something very familiar to you indeed.
      This is one of those ‘dark underbelly’ things that we know exist, but we don’t give any thought to unless something goes terribly wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. reocochran says:

    I am late, late for an important “date” with my friend, Joanne. I am lately over-posting. Then, I spend too much time reading responses and I miss visiting my friends.
    Anyway, my favorite details are the dragons and serpents used as underpinning supports at the Jail. Wow! It is funny that they limit your time. It doesn’t seem crowded in the photos.
    The arches look so beautiful and dramatic. This is truly a unique place and thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

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  4. nrhatch says:

    The facade is attractive . . . the interior shots are sobering.
    I’m with you, better a visitor than an inmate!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. hiren says:

    hi very good article.

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  6. Ally Bean says:

    That last photo sends chills down my spine. So simple, yet perfectly evocative of what being incarcerated is all about. Great photos and topic here.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Margie in Toronto says:

    A friend and I were lucky enough to visit this site during “Doors Open” two years ago – they gave us bracelets to come back at a specific time rather than having us wait – and then we were on a guided tour with someone who stayed with our group throughout so that we stayed on track. What is truly shocking about this facility (at least to modern eyes) is that this prison was considered to be state-of-the-art when it opened – imagine giving prisoners a private cell!
    This year I finally made it to the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in the east end. A friend and I got there early and we were in the first group through – they told us that last year they had 6,000 people per day come through! It is an amazing complex of buildings so if you haven’t been there you should consider putting it on your list for next year. I love “Doors Open” events – I’ve also been to the one in Ottawa a couple of years ago and I’m going to try to hit a few more of the small town ones later in the summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. bikerchick57 says:

    I worked in a prison in WI for three years and I can say it was a palace compared to the Don Jail. Oh my, those narrow prison cells were bad enough, but to then have to smell urine and feces and whatever else at night? I would think that anyone who spent time there would vow to never go back.

    Thanks for taking us through the jail via your photographs. I’m glad it was a tour and not an unintended stay. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s a beautiful building on the outside, and I really like the metal brackets holding up the catwalk.
    I’d rather be a visitor than inmate any day too.

    I got a kick out of your title. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m glad the place was saved, Joanne, and it’s ironic that it’s now part of a “health” center. The shadow of the gallows’ platform is really creepy. I don’t know if I’d want to work there. Even the photos have a weird feeling to them. I agree though, it’s fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating post – I too would have lined up for this tour! The shadowed remains of the gallows you photographed were especially haunting – the terror those walls contained.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      The stories are actually quite terrifying, Carol. The gallows was on the same floor as the cells for those who may be waiting for execution. They could hear what was happening.
      One inmate was so terrified of the gallows, he committed suicide by throwing himself off the 3rd floor balcony.
      Some very terrible stories.

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  12. Lovely photographs as always! That is some detailed metalwork for a jail. I feel like I walked with you through the space! Thanks!
    A colleague was just saying yesterday how the Don Jail is a very popular Doors Open location and the line ups are pretty long.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I think the trick is to arrive either before opening, or as close to opening as possible. I can imagine the line-up gets pretty long as the day progresses.
      I’m just glad it wasn’t raining!

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  13. boristoronto says:

    always been fascinated by the Don jail. bummer I missed this years doors open.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lynn says:

    What a fascinating visit Joanne. Like so many, I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have your freedom taken away. Have you considered doing the Kingston Pen tour? I have heard it is very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      The Kingston Pen is next on my list. My understanding is that they are offering tours every day until October.
      I’m hoping I can get there before the end of June and the busy tourist season starts. If not, I’ll likely wait until September.

      Like

  15. Mara Eastern says:

    I love your eleventh commandment! This would be my favourite post by you so far – informative and entertaining, plus I’m also quite fascinated with prisons. This one is fascinating. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My first thought when I saw your post was “I always knew there was something dodgy about you.” That was a joke (just in case). 😉 I love jails – old ones, no longer used, that I don’t have to stay in. Although, having said that, I have stayed in jail. There was (not sure if it’s still there) a youth hostel in the town of Napier in New Zealand that was an old jail. The jail had only closed in the ’90s so they had to have a security pad with a code on the main gate to get in because occasionally they would get former ‘guests’ coming to visit. For nostalgia purposes one can only assume… 😀

    I love the snakes and dragons, especially the dragons. Very cool.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      hehehe! I once heard an old woman say that it was the quiet ones which you need to be more careful of 😉

      We visited an old prison in Australia years ago when we were there and I can’t for the life of me remember where – nor can I find photos.
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who has a fascination with them. To some people, I’m sure it’s rather peculiar.

      It’s funny you mentioned former ‘guests’. I wondered if any take advantage of the Doors Open event to revisit the Don – perhaps to expel any bad residual memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Never been inside The Don so happy to see this post. The photographs were great. You certainly managed the bad lighting and crowds extremely well. I’m going to do the google search for the history as you’ve piqued my interest.

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  18. Like you, I’m sensitive to the “vibe” of a place. So much so, I feel unsettled on behalf of the people who work in the refurbished space. As they say, a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live/work here.

    Love the wrought iron details – less than ideal photography needs notwithstanding.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      It was such a peculiar little detail to add to the construction. I wonder if it was an attempt to intimidate.

      I read that as a historical building, Bridgepoint had to negotiate the changes made to the building. One interesting detail concerns the bars on the windows which the city wanted to preserve. As a rehabilitation facility, the hospital thought the bars were inconsistent with the *vibe* they wanted to provide. An agreement was reached that windows of rooms used by employees and patients would not have bars.
      Before I had entered the building, I had taken a number of photos outside and wondered why some windows had bars while others didn’t. Now I know.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. A debt of gratitude is in order for setting aside opportunity to get some photographs to share, Joanne. It’s difficult to envision living under such conditions. I get it’s ideal to be well behaved natives…

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  20. Sue Slaght says:

    Wow Joanne I’m so glad it worked out for you to attend and to show us the interior. A fascinating place although certainly not for those who inhabited it years ago. I think your photos have the eerie feel to what must be a building filled with ghastly stories. I agree that visiting is intriguing but staying overnight not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. joey says:

    It’s an interesting place, as old buildings often are. I don’t like to visit jails. When I was in grade school, I was the one kid who wouldn’t go into the cell and pretend to be a prisoner. I’m tellin ya, I was born this way! lol
    I find that door interesting too. I wonder if the stairs used to be angled differently?

    Like

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      Now that you mention it, I’m not so keen about going inside the cells either. I’m happy to stay outside, thank you very much 🙂

      I hadn’t considered that perhaps the stairs had been re-jigged in the past. That certainly would make sense.
      However, I’ve done enough home renovations in the past to question why the job wasn’t finished properly and the door removed!

      Liked by 1 person

  22. I love that Toronto puts on such a terrific event each year… I would love if my city did that. I’m pretty sure the prison would be high on my list too. I’ve visited Alcatraz and the old Yuma state prison – both eye-openers. I also visited a currently operating prison as part of my job once… that was creepy, and fascinating. Fortunately, I’ve never been to prison as a “guest.” Great pictures and post!

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I’ve also been to Alcatraz and it certainly left me with a feeling of despair. I’ve never been inside an operating prison though. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

      This was the first time I’ve participated in the Doors Open event. This year apparently there were 150 buildings that opened their doors and next year I hope I can add in several new visits.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. I visited Alcatraz when we lived in CA and it left a mark on my soul. How much it must hurt to lose freedom, not matter if you are a human being or “just” an animal. I never think about the ones who deserve it, I think about the ones that don’t deserve it. The innocent that had to endure living like that. Gosh, I should haver neve read “The Count of Monte Christo” it damaged me for life. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      For me, it was the book *Papillon* followed by the movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. That one scarred – and scared – me for life.

      It’s also why I couldn’t bear having an indoor cat. I was told that being outdoors with all its inherent dangers shortens their life span, but I’d rather have a short life of freedom than a long life of captivity.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Corina says:

    On my bucket list is visiting Alcatraz. I lived nearby much of my life but haven’t been able to visit. One day I will.

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  25. Very interesting post! Do they charge for this event? Does it raise money for something?

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      There is no charge to visit the venues. I’ve never attended it before and I’ll be certain to return!

      Like

    • Margie in Toronto says:

      “Doors Open” events now run in cities and small towns all around the world – I believe it started in Glasgow around 20 years ago. It’s all free and is to encourage people to come out and learn a bit more about their own home towns. If you Google Doors Open you will get the history and if you google it with a specific city or area (i.e. Ontario) you should find a whole list. The weekends tend to run from the Spring right through to the Fall – Toronto’s is always the last weekend in May so you can plan ahead. There will also often be a theme for the year -ie “Green Buildings” or Religious ones of various denominations – and I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that Toronto has also started adding guided walks – which do have to be registered for ahead of time (I assume to control the numbers).

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a great idea! I will check it out and see if there is anything like that close to where I live! Thanks for sharing!

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      • Joanne Sisco says:

        Great information. This was my first year attending so I actually knew very little about the event. I didn’t realize Toronto is always the last weekend in May. I guess that skewers my plans for attending next year then. My son trying to tie down that date for his wedding next year.
        hmmm – attend my son’s wedding or go to Doors Open? Which will I pick? 😉

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  26. Tippy Gnu says:

    Your pictures and narrative really convey the horror of residing in this jail. My wife and I once visited the old Yuma, Arizona Territorial prison. It gave us a similar eerie vibe, and haunted us for some time afterward. I’m sure glad I’ve never been caught.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Donna says:

    You have done an outstanding job with this post, Joanne (despite the crowds and low lighting). I fully agree with you — it would be very odd to work there. It would simply freak me out!

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Whew, you’re definitely best off. When I saw the title, I had to wonder!

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  29. Dan Antion says:

    Thanks for taking time to get some photos to share, Joanne. It’s hard to imagine living under such conditions. I guess it’s better to be law-abiding citizens.

    We live near Old Newgate Prison & copper mine. The attraction has been closed for many years due to a lack of funding.

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  30. Joe says:

    I’m speechless Joanne, imagine that ? I love the images and it looks like they did a great job on the restoration.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I’m hoping you’re speechless because I did such a good job of NOT burdening you with a lot of history 😉

      I think it’s interesting that they’ve converted the building to office space, but as a historical building, have thoughtfully retained its architectural character as a jail. I just think it would be odd to work there.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Joe says:

        Im speechless because of the images you took of this old building Joanne 🙂 I was also speechless when my wife and I took a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary. These kind of places always make me think of the people that passed through here and the conditions that were endured.

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