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.
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.
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.
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.
I can only guess what the intention was to incorporate serpents and dragons into the interior. Dramatic impact, perhaps?
Sorry for some of the terrible images – it was sometimes quite difficult to take photos with the crowds and poor lighting.
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.
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.
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.