The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of April 1971 was a four-day event that took place from Wednesday April 14 to Sunday April 18, 1971 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada (Desroches 1974). According to eye-witness accounts given to authorities by inmates in Kingston Penitentiary during the occurrences, there appeared to be rumors circulating in the days leading up to the outbreak of the riot that trouble would soon ensue. The reason for dissent by the prisoners were focused around several factors which included, but weren’t limited to, the lack of work provided by the institution, lack of free time to engage in recreational activities, and growing concerns pertaining to the possible worsening conditions to be met once the newly built Millhaven Prison was opened (Desroches 1974).
Led by inmate Brian Knight, an attack on the guards during a recreation period had concluded in the capture of said guards and the further surrender of the prison, by the Warden, to the prisoners on the promise that no guard shall be harmed and no violence should be conducted anywhere else within the prison (Lowman and MacLean 1991). Knight, and his followers had released the rest of the prisoners and addressed them in the central dome area of the prison that was a common place for all the inmates. The only prisoners who were kept incarcerated within their cells were the “undesirables” who were locked in the cell area known as 1-D. The “undesirables” consisted of child sex offenders and prisoners who were labelled as ‘informants’ (Desroches 1974). Although it may appear to be a form of alienation, this seclusion was done to protect these individuals from their fellow inmates, as they were repeatedly harassed and assaulted on numerous occasions.
At first, Knight and his self-appointed ‘negotiation committee’ took part in peaceful negotiations with the Warden’s citizens committee in an attempt to improve the horrendous and inhuman prison conditions for inmates (Desroches 1974).
However, unbeknownst to Knight, several inmates had climbed the barricade into 1-D and begun harassing its cellmates for enjoyment. Inmates in 1-D were beaten and tortured using various tools ranging from metal bars to fire prevention hoses (Desroches 1974). In an attempt to regain order, Knight sought to address the prison population but was overthrown by competing powers. Two groups attempted to gain control, one group headed by inmate MacKenzie, and the other headed by inmate Shelpley (Desroches 1974). Eventually, MacKenzie and his group gained control of the prison and aimed their efforts at progressing the negotiations (Lowman and MacLean 1991). In the midst of negotiations however, Shepley- who led the second group focused his efforts on the use of physical force to gain control. It is unknown whether or not he wanted his actions to have a positive or negative affect on the negotiations process. Whilst MacKenzie and his ‘team’ left to negotiate with the citizens committee in the hospital wing of the prison (the one area still left under control of the prison authorities) Shepley took charge of the prison and ordered that the “undesirables” be dragged out from 1-D and tied to chairs in a circle around the radiator within the center of the dome. There, they were repeatedly beaten and tortured, resulting in the death of two individuals. Upon MacKenzie’s return from the hospital wing, the news of the beatings had spread and reached the government officials in Ottawa, at which point the Canadian army was deployed to end the disturbance. By this time, the majority of the prisoners were now willing to surrender the prison back to the authorities (Desroches 1974).
The Kingston Penitentiary Riot of April 1971 led to the immediate opening of the Millhaven Penitentiary, a new maximum-security prison (Lowman and MacLean 1991), where approximately 400 prisoners were transferred. Various reports stated a number of causes that contributed to the failure of Kingston Penitentiary as a prison institution including (but not limited to); overcrowding of prisoners, shortages of professional staff, too much time spent in cells with not enough time allocated for recreational purposes and the failure to instil sufficient channels to deal with current and/or ongoing complaints made by prisoners (Desroches 1974). Eventually, these shortcomings led to it’s deterioration, and the destruction of the life and program that was offered by Kingston Penitentiary as a primarily rehabilitative institution.
Following the riot, several inmates were brought to trial, based upon the evidence given by other prisoners, of which, thirteen were charged with Non-Capital murder. Three of the thirteen were already serving life sentences, while the others were given additional sentences (Desroches 1974). In another trial, Brian Knight and the five men with him that were responsible for initiating the riot by overthrowing the guards, were charged with several accounts of forcible seizure as well as holding men hostage. Of the six, five were charged and convicted, the only one left was Brian Knight who changed his physical appearance so drastically before the trial had commenced that most guards were unable to positively identify him as being involved (Desroches 1974). The case against Brian Knight was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.
Click HERE to view a short video, taken from CTV news footage, that briefly depicts what the prison looked like from the exterior immediately after the April 1971 riot, as well as the damage that was done by prisoners to the interior. Pay particular mind to the images of the ‘dome’- the place in which the ‘undesirables’ were tied to their chairs and beaten, two of whom were beaten to death. This was the place in which the leaders of the riot, Knight, MacKenzie, and later Shepley would address the prisoners, and as stated above, was also the place in which the ‘undesirables’ were beaten and tortured while the rest of the inmates would watch from the balconies overlooking this central area.
Desroches, Fred. 1974. “The April 1971 Kingston Penitentiary Riot.” Canadian Journal of Criminology & Corrections 16.4: 317-331.
Lowman, John, and Brian MacLean. 1991. “Prisons & Protest in Canada.” Social Justice 18.3: 130-154.