Don Jail

The “Old” Don Jail (The “new” Toronto Jail is seen to right beyond)

The “Old” Don Jail opened in 1864 and closed in 1977. It was Toronto’s fourth jail, replacing the one on the site of the old Parliament Buildings at Front and Parliament. While in the years just before it closed it was considered “an embarrassment to the Canadian criminal justice system,” when it opened it was called the “Palace for Prisoners.” at that time it represented a tremendous advance in the public attitude toward the treatment of law breakers. Until then, (as was then the world wide custom) prisoners had been confined in appalling and inhumane conditions. Its architect was William Thomas, who also designed St. Michael’s Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall. Construction started in October, 1859, and it was almost completed when, in 1862, a disastrous fire necessitated its rebuilding. The firm of William Thomas and Sons reconstructed the building, to his original plans, and it was occupied in January, 1864.

Willliam Thomas

William Thomas ranks as one of Canada’s leading architects. He was born in Suffolk, England in 1799 and came to Canada in 1843, where with two of his sons, he established a successful architectural firm in Toronto. He was a master of Classic and Gothic design, and some of the finest buildings in Ontario were designed by the firm. He did not live to see the Don Jail completed as he died December 26, 1860. He is buried in St. James’ Cemetery.

In 1856, the City of Toronto bought 119 acres from the Scadding estate in order to establish a park and a jail farm. Later the jail property was separated out from the park lands for administrative purposes.

The central block of the old jail is formal in design, and has the grandeur that is expected of a significant public building. Hand-tooled stone, distinctively carved and set, is reprensenative of a very high standard of craftsmanship. The two wings of buff brick balance and enhance the proportions of the central block. It was state-of-the-art when it was built, and considerably more humane than jails in much of the world at the time and a great improvement on earlier Toronto Jails. The cells while of massive construction, were tiny; just 86 centimetres wide and there was no electricity nor plumbing. A bucket served as a toilet, which was emptied every morning. On the other hand, the exercise galleries were an amenity not offered in many modern institutions.

Prisoners were not allowed to talk without permission and received only monthly visits from friends and family. Violations frequently resulted in flogging. For about the first 100 years, inmates generally were not allowed to speak unless addressed first by a prison official. Prisoners spent 23 hours a day in the cell blocks with the remaining hour in the outdoor exercise yard, now a parking lot. They had to keep moving in the yard and were not allowed to sit around and soak up the sun. The inmates did much of the maintenance including painting, carpentry work and other jail repairs. They also worked a jail farm that covered much of the present Riverdale Park.

Upon arrival at the jail, inmates were escorted to the reception area where they were given prison garb in exchange for their own clothes, which were disinfected. The Superintendent made sure that a big kettle of nourishing soup was brewing for the drunks rounded up on Saturday nights. He knew they wouldn’t be able to stomach anything else.

It is said that in early years when the native landlocked Salmon (Ouananish) still ran up the Don. that the prisoners complained of being fed to much salmon.

Public hanging in Canada wasn’t abolished until 1869, and in Toronto it was moved indoors from the Don Jail yard into its confines in 1905.

The Don Jail was said to be haunted by a blonde-haired ghost. It was there, in one of the tiny cells reserved for women in the west wing, that a prisoner hung herself in the 1890s. The report is that guards on the graveyard shift saw her spirit floating through the air in the main rotunda.

Riverdale Branch Library was built on property that the City of Toronto conveyed to the Toronto Public Library Board early in 1909. The land had been the garden of the Don Jail’s Governor, and a special arrangement was made for jail personnel to grade and maintain the lawns and grounds surrounding the branch.

In later years, even with the construction of the “New Jail,” (a “nondescript, brick structure” built in 1958 to the north-east), it became extremely overcrowded. Frequently three inmates were held in cells meant for a single prisoner and in others inmates went for days without a chance to exercise. It was so bad that both prisoners and guards were at risk. It did not meet the minimum prison standards of the United Nations. At one time it held 691 prisoners, well over the recommended maximum. It was designed to house 275 prisoners, one per cell. It was noisy and plagued with mice and cockroaches. Many of the prisoners suffered from mental illness. The worse part was that many were those awaiting trial and so presumed innocent. It was intended for short-term stays for prisoners awaiting trial, but many inmates stayed there for 30 to 90 days and some were there for months and even years.

“Next Friday, the correctional services staff and chaplains who have been using part of the old building for office space will have been moved into other quarters, and people will be prevented from entering the Don. Only the newer Toronto Jail, a nondescript, brick structure attached to the Don, will be used. Officials with the government services ministry, which owns the Don, say the building is unsafe.” reported The Toronto Star January 9, 1993. Although inmates had not been held in the Old Don’s narrow cells since 1977, those associated with the building were saddened by its closing. They were afraid that an important part of the city’s history would be allowed to decay.

The New Jail, which normally holds over 600 inmates, is scheduled to close in 2009, when the new detention centre is completed in Mimico.

Information from several websites, a pamphlet about the Old Don Jail prepared for the City of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Foundation by the Toronto Historical Board, “Cabbagetown Remembered” and several verbal communications. For more information about the cornerstone laying and the fire see “Cabbagetown Remembered,” which has much interesting information on other Cabbagetown and nearby sites.