Saturday, July 21, 2018
KP and the Gospel
Photo: Ruth Mundy
I finally returned after 39 years to a place which had a profound effect on me as I prepared for ministry. Yesterday Ruth and I went on a tour of Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security prison which was the first in Canada and closed in 2013 after 180 years of housing inmates. In the latter years it was a prison for men but in earlier days it also held women and even children.
The youngest inmate to be incarcerated in KP was an eight-year-old pickpocket who spent three years behind bars. Ah, justice. If that sounds Dickensian, Charles Dickens visited KP in 1842, only a few years after it opened, and observed: "There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect."
Walking through the imposing North Gate of the prison yesterday was "a trip" as we were wont to say in another time. I entered that gate five days a week for four months as part of a chaplain internship program along with three others. I was 24 and as green as could be, while the others were all a few years older.. Our chaplain supervisor was a tough little Baptist bulldog of a man, and willing to push us toward greater insight. Sadly, my final reflection paper and evaluation of those months of internship may have perished in the "great purge" of files when I retired last year.
There were two disappointments during what was generally a very worthwhile tour. We didn't visit the chapel, which was admittedly a nondescript room. Yet in that chapel area significant interactions took place between chaplains and inmates which went to the heart of Christ's gospel of acceptance and love.
We didn't go to the isolation range either, at least not the pre-90's area which was my daily visitation assignment. This was also known as "The Hole" and it was a bleak place with narrow cells and opaque windows high on the wall. The more modern isolation cells were much larger and had an actual window to the main courtyard.
The Hole was hell and everyone knew it. The inmates were isolated for their own protection, but there was nothing humane about the setting. In the main hub of the spoke-like prison a retired deputy warden gave us some history of the institution, including the 1971 riot. As we left that spot I pointed to the stairs leading down to The Hole and told him of my role. He shook his head and said he wouldn't have wanted that job. Later Ruth commented that I rarely spoke of my experiences at the end of each day and we were expected to observe confidentiality. I was young, and at a stage of life when I wanted to fulfill expectations without questioning what I was asked to do.
It was important for me to return to Kingston Pen and it may be that before long the tours will end and the valuable property on Lake Ontario will be redeveloped. I'm appreciative of the internship nearly four decades ago and the way it shaped my outlook on "the least of these."