The Don Jail was designed by architect William Thomas in 1852. The city purchased 117 acres of land outside of city limits in 1856, and construction began in October of 1859.
Construction was almost complete when, in 1862, a fire almost completely destroyed the structure. Construction recommenced once again, and by 1864, the jail was finally completed and became occupied.
When it was constructed, the Don Jail was the very model of the excellent treatment of prisoners. It allowed for direct sunlight to enter the 276 cells, and featured heat and ventilation.
Despite that, things for the prisoners were not easy. During the appropriate seasons, they worked the fields that then surrounded the jail. The rest of the time, they spent 23 hours per day in their cells. During the one hour exercise time, they were not allowed to speak, and not allowed to stop or sit down. In fact, prisoners were never allowed to speak unless addressed directly by a prison official. The breaking of the prison's rules could result in discipline by flogging.
The cells the prisoners lived in were only 3 feet wide and 8 feet deep. They did not have toilets, but rather had buckets there emptied daily. Visits by family or friends were limited to once per month. Prisoners were also expected to handle most of the routine maintenance of the jail including painting, carpentry ,etc.
On occasion, hangings were conducted at the jail. Originally, they were public and held outside. In 1869, however, Canada outlawed public hanging, and they were moved indoors. Most accounts hold that a washroom was converted into a hanging gallows, but it appears that in fact it was a stairwell.
In total, the Don Jail saw 34 hangings. Thirty were hung for murder, while the other 4 were hung for rape.
Turpin robbed a restaurant for the total of $632.84. He got away clean until an Ontario PP officer pulled over his vehicle for a broken taillight. Turpin shot and killed the officer, and stole his cruiser. He was captured soon afterward.
Lucas was an American who came into Canada from Detroit to murder a man and his girlfriend who were to testify in a drug-related trial. He returned to the United States after the double murder, but was arrested and extradited back to Canada for trial.
Lucas was allegedly informed that he would likely be the last executed in Canada to which he replied, "Some consolation."
The double hanging was conducted on December 11, 1962 while protests went on outside.
In 1977, the jail was closed for overcrowding, and used solely for administration purposes while the new jail, adjacent to the original building, is used to this day.
Because of deplorable conditions in that jail, a new one is being constructed in Mimico. Upon completion, the rest of the Don Jail will be closed and the newer section demolished.
Bridgepoint Health currently owns the Old Don Jail, and will soon be renovating it into office space.
We arrived at the jail at 4:30 PM, 30 minutes early for our appointment and having driven four hours just for this opportunity. We waited anxiously, even more so as we learned that we would likely be the last public group to see this historic location before it is renovated into office space.
When at last we were let loose inside, we were not disappointed. The moment we entered the rotunda, we couldn't help but be overwhelmed. The high ceiling, and small windows surrounding its peak. The railings and balconies surrounding the room above. The intricacy of the wrought iron serpents that adorned the underside of the walkways.
As we entered one of the cell blocks, we instantly recognized that this was unlike any of the three other prisons we had visited before. The cells were smaller, more claustrophobic. Executions had been carried out here. Standing on the upper level of the gallows room and seeing the outlines in the paint where the heavy support timbers had once been. Looking down to the level below where the condemned men dropped. You can almost smell the fear oozing from the walls.
While we spent only one hour here, it was sufficient to give us a glimpse firsthand into what life might have been like here. While certainly, one who was not there can never know completely what it was like, this one small look was enough to show us it could not have been pleasant.