Geoffrey James’ “Inside Kingston Penitentiary”
At first glance, the images of the North Wall and the Main Gate seem like any aging Kingston building—a quaint scene of relative tranquility. The next image, however, shows thick, seemingly impenetrable wooden doors held in place by tired, rusty hinges, creaking fixtures that speak to an existence spanning over a hundred years. We see these doors open into stark institutional surroundings and a grim interior that belie the peaceful exterior we saw just moments ago.
Kingston Penitentiary closed its doors last fall. Despite its pronounced role in shaping the social and economic conditions of our town, the institution remained largely un-photographed until its final months, when Toronto-based photographer Geoffrey James (recipient of the Governor General’s Award in 2012) spent several months documenting life inside Canada’s most renowned prison. The result is a stunning and moving collection that brings life to the setting, relationships, and routines forged within those towering walls of wire and stone, and is a must-see for any QL student interested in correctional law.
James’ work effectively juxtaposes unremarkable images, objects, and slogans with a truly unique setting. Walking past ‘Inmates Working in Compound,’ one could almost be forgiven for thinking they are looking at an aerial shot of a typical suburban street. People stroll down open lanes, the sun throws lazy shadows onto a path where a car idles in the foreground, and men push lawnmowers across kempt lawns. Only when the eye wanders to the top right corner and notices the barbed wire creeping into frame does this image take on a new, more complicated dimension.
Another photograph of confiscated items shows three teddy bears lined in a row beneath an open box of vinyl gloves, forcing us to ponder the significance that these seemingly innocent, childish tokens assume within the prisons walls. Images of graffiti pronouncing ‘Go Leafs Go’ could have been taken in the washroom of any downtown bar, yet in the context of segregation, the slogan suggests efforts made to whittle away the hours, and the need to hold on to comforting refrains from the outside world. Many images suggest attempts at permanence and identity in a temporary and impersonal setting; the painstaking efforts of inmates to decorate their cells with detailed Harley Davison logos speak to sentences that stretch beyond a handful of years and attempts to create a bespoke retreat within a setting that demands conformity.
James’ work tells us that much of Kingston Pen was transient and that the faces were ever changing. Yet it simultaneously speaks to the permanence and unchanging nature of the structure itself. ‘Prison seen from the Marina’ frames the institution against a cold winter setting, reminding us that while seasons changed outside, the routine within remained unaffected. The population grew or diminished as inmates were released, transferred, and replaced by new inhabitants, but the walls remained unchanged; an image of stranded pink chairs decorating a never-used exercise yard for female inhabitants shows us a scene that greeted every new set of eyes. It is only when images focus on the inmates themselves that we truly appreciate the passage of time. We see Aboriginal inmates celebrating the changing of seasons and inmates at a medication review session casting a hopeful eye towards a slightly brighter future. These images, as well as the portraits of various guards and the haunting poetic offerings found daubed on cell walls vividly capture the human experience within the penitentiary and breathe life into the austere spaces captured by James’ lens.
Geoffrey James: ‘Inside Kingston Penitentiary;’ Agnes Etherington Arts Centre at Queen’s University (until December 7). / www.agnes.queensu.ca
Tom Mack (2L) is a Culture Editor for Juris Diction.
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