Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Mystique of the British Columbia Penitentiary

The Mystique of the British Columbia Penitentiary

By Touko Fukami
The MiTSS News
November 16, 2072

The British Columbia Penitentiary (BC Penitentiary, commonly referred to as the BC Pen and the Pen) was a federal maximum security prison located in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada. The BC Penitentiary operated for 102 years, from 1878 until it was decommissioned in 1980. It was the first federal penal institution west of Manitoba. After British Columbia joined confederation in 1871 and with the population of western Canada increasing, the need for a federal prison in western Canada became apparent. The fact that the transcontinental railroad had not yet been constructed made transporting prisoners long distances east to other federal institutions costly and difficult, which further exacerbated this need.

Planning and construction for the BC Penitentiary began in 1874. The site selected was a hillside overlooking the Fraser River in the Sapperton neighbourhood of New Westminster. The prison received its first inmates in 1878 and opened without fanfare.

The buildings and structures that made up the BC Penitentiary site were added gradually. The original complex comprised the main gate house and a few brick and wooden buildings. The large cell blocks, which housed most of the inmates, were constructed between 1904 and 1914.

BC Penitentiary was replete with structural problems when it opened, including flooding of the basement, faulty plumbing and heating, bars either missing from windows or not properly affixed to the walls, and the lack of proper medical facilities. Major repairs and renovations were conducted over several years to remedy these issues, with most of the work performed by inmate work crews.

The site was initially fenced by a wooden fence, which was soon upgraded to 30-foot rock walls, and finally 40-foot concrete walls. Guard towers were located on each corner. Until 1961, the prison incorporated a farm, located across the street from the penitentiary, where some inmates would be assigned to work. The farm produced a sizeable portion of the food used use in the institution’s kitchen. The farm was economically viable into the late 1950s. However, increasing costs of its operation, decreasing costs of buying food from outside sources, the perceived decline in the usefulness of providing agricultural training to inmates, and the increasing urbanization of the surrounding area, led to the decision to close the farm and sell the farmland to the City of New Westminster.

Staffing requirements increased over time in accordance with standards dictated by the Canadian Penitentiary Service. They were 171 in the mid-1950s, and had increased to 363 in 1976, despite a decrease in the prison population during this period. BC Penitentiary experienced severe overcrowding starting in the 1950s holding as many as 765 prisoners in 1958. The Canadian Penitentiary Service attempted to alleviate this by transferring inmates to other institutions, such as the recently opened William Head Institution. By the mid-1960s, the population had been reduced to around 500 inmates.[13] However, this did not prevent the series of violent riots and hostage-takings that plagued BC Penitentiary in its final years.

On March 12, 1979, Correctional Service of Canada announced that British Columbia Penitentiary would close. Inmates were gradually transferred to Kent Institution, with the last inmate leaving on February 15, 1980. For two weeks in May, 1980, the prison was opened to the public for the first time; over 80,000 attended the open house. Although BC Penitentiary had opened with no ceremony or fanfare whatever 102 years earlier, a formal ceremony, attended by various dignitaries, was held to mark its closing on May 10, 1980.[ Most of the buildings on the former BC Pen site have been demolished and replaced by residential housing and parkland. Only four parts of the original prison still remain: the Gatehouse (which is now a sports bar), the Coal House, the original Centre Block (which has been converted to offices), and the cemetery.

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