Kingston Penitentiary Riot 1971

Kingston Penitentiary is a maximum-security prison located in the city of Kingston, Ontario. The penitentiary was officially opened on June 1, 1835 making it one of the oldest penitentiaries in North America (McCoy 2012). Kingston Penitentiary has experienced several significant events throughout its very long and dark history. The Kingston Penitentiary riot in 1971 is one of the most destructive and bloodiest prison riot to occur in Canadian history.

The riot initially started in the evening of April 14, 1971 and lasted four days resulting in the death of two inmates and the major destruction of the prison (Larsen 1988). The Kingston Penitentiary riot involved 550 inmates, six prison guards that were taken hostage and the Canadian Army and the Kingston police force. The initial start of the event was sudden, however it escalated rapidly. The incident first began when a small group of inmates overpowered the prison guards and attained full control of the prison (Larsen 1988). Minutes later, the entire prison population was released from their cells except the “undesirable” inmates which included sex offenders and suspected informers (Larsen 1988). Five correctional officers were taken hostage; approximately fifteen “undesirable” inmates were severely injured resulting in the death of two inmates and the major destruction of the prison’s control centre and various cells (Sapers 2008).

It is important to question and understand why the inmates initiated violence within the Kingston Penitentiary prison. A significant photo portrays an inmate holding a banner from the top of a six-story dome stating “What about our human rights?” (Enright 2004). Several inmates informed citizens’ advisory committees and journalists about police brutality, poor living conditions within the penitentiary, changes to the Parole Act in 1969 and the fear of being transferred to Millhaven prison which was undergoing construction at the time (Enright 2004). Additionally, Swackhamer (1973) and his report called The Commission of Inquiry into Certain Disturbances at Kingston Penitentiary during April 1971 reported a number of causes in relation to the uprising such as aged facilities, overcrowding, maximum security confinement, extended periods spent in cells, a lack of adequate channels to deal with inmate complaints, shortage on professional staff, and limited recreational and educational programs.

After four days of continuous uprising consisting of violence, destruction and even casualties, the riot finally came to an end. After several meetings between inmate leaders and the citizen’s committee, the inmates received a final warning indicating the release of the correctional officers and inmates peacefully or the army would move in forcefully (Desroches 1974). The announcement sparked a storm of inmates fleeing towards the hospital exist within the Kingston Penitentiary, agreeing to end the riot (Desroches 1974).

The Kingston Penitentiary riot contributed towards drastic and significant changes in a number of areas. The immediate opening of a maximum-security prison called Millhaven Penitentiary opened in May 1971 and nearly 400 inmates were transferred (Lowman and Maclean 1991). The Millhaven Penitentiary opened in an atmosphere of violence essentially taken from the Kingston Penitentiary riot. According to Sapers (2008) correctional staff at Millhaven Penitentiary assaulted 86 inmates, involved in the Kingston Penitentiary riots causing severe  injuries. The Kingston Penitentiary riot was also a major turning point for the Correctional Services of Canada leading to numerous prison reforms (Enright 2004). This included the creation of an official sub-committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada chaired by Justice Mark MacGuigan, which investigated inmate complaints (Sapers 2008).

The Kingston Penitentiary riot was a form of dissent initiated by Canadian inmates against the Canadian Justice System.


Desroches, Fred. 1974. “ The April 1971 Kingston Penitentiary Riot”. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Corrections 16(4): 317-331

Enright, Michael. 2004. “1971 Kingston Penitentiary Riots.” CBC, September 30. Retrieved October 15, 2012 (

Larsen, Nick. 1988. “The Utility of Prison Violence: An A-Causal Approach to Prison   Riots.” Criminal Justice Review 13(1): 29-38.

Lowman, John and Brian Maclean. 1991. “Prisons and Protest In Canada.” Social Justice 18 (3): 130-154.

McCoy, Ted. 2012.“The Rise of the Modern Canadian Penitentiary, 1835-1900.” Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 72 (9):34-57.

Sapers, Howard. 2008. “Office of the Correctional Investigator: Annual Report 2007/08.” The Correctional Investigator Canada Retrieved October 15, 2012 (

Swackhamer, Jason W. 1973. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Disturbances at Kingston Penitentiary during April 1971. Ottawa: Information Canada.



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