In 2009, through Doors Open, I had the pleasure of volunteering as a tour guide at the Old Don Jail. It was last opportunity to see the Jail as Bridgepoint Health planned to reuse the building as offices.
The Old Don Jail is a fascinating building with an equally fascinating history. It is one of a few buildings in Toronto still in existence that was built before Confederation and upon it’s completion, was the largest prison of it’s kind built in North America.
The Jail was built by one of Toronto’s most important architects, William Thomas (1862 – 1865). At the time, the Jail was a remarkable feat and reflected a contemporary trends of the mid-19th century for prison design. Leading off the central Rotunda were cell wings housing 3′ x 9′ cells. The Jail’s purpose was to reform it’s inmates instead of only incarcerating then.
As remarkable as the Jail was during it’s life as a prison, it did feature public hangings which moved to an indoor gallows. The last hanging at the prison was on December 11, 1962 before capital punishment was abolished in Canada.
Towards the end of it’s life before the Jail closed, the prisoners had to tolerate poor, inhumane conditions. When the Jail was completed in the 1858, the maximum capacity was 276 prisoners which allowed approximately one prisoner pera cell. As the Jail approached it’s final leg before closing in 1977, the 3′ x9′ cells in the old Don Jail would hold up to 3 prisoners.
I remember one of the correctional officers who works at the new jail next door told one of the tour groups a story about the prisoners and drugs that were becoming prevalent in Toronto during the 1950s and 1960s. The prisoners’ ‘friends’ who were not in jail would use tennis balls to through over drugs into the exercise area whenever prisoners were allowed to be in the outdoor exercise area. The guards slowly caught on and these ‘friends’ moved too better ways in providing drugs to those on the inside. Pigeons, dead pigeons. The pigeons would be cut open, stuffed with drugs and then thrown over into the exercise area.
There were other tidbits of information that we were privileged to hear during the various groups that came through the Jail. For example, the rotunda of the Don Jail was used as the nightclub featured in ‘Cocktail’ starring Tom Cruise. Other guides told of hauntings in the old Don Jail from those who were hanged.
The Old Don Jail is definitely a hidden treasure and a very interesting building.