Thursday, 12 November 2015




As some of you may know, I am originally from Ottawa. One of the things I miss about attending university at uOttawa, apart from breakfast at F&S, is passing by a former jail on my daily commute. Right beside the Rideau Centre (Ottawa’s version of the Eaton Centre) and just off campus, is the former Carleton County Gaol. Being that it is located in the heart of downtown, it may surprise you to learn that this jail was in operation until 1972!

Carleton County Gaol in the 19th century. Source

The jail, conveniently built next to the courthouse, was erected in 1862. Most famously, Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s killer was hanged there in February 1869. This was Canada’s last public hanging, though the last execution at the Carleton County Gaol took place in 1946. If you can believe it, this was not the last execution in Canada, for two men were hanged in Toronto’s Don Jail in December 1962.

Toronto's Don Jail in the 1860s. Source

Don Jail, located on Gerrard St E. in Riverdale, was built in 1864 and remained open until 2013. Today, the historic building has been taken over by the Bridgepoint Health, a rehabilitation centre, but maintains its original fa├žade. 

The former Don Jail's facade today. Source

Like the Don Jail, the former Carleton County Gaol was given new life after it was decommissioned as a prison. In 1973, the Gaol opened as a youth hostel, and it continues to operate as a hostel today. For just over 30$ a night you can stay in a cell in the former jail, and enjoy a drink in the bar, ‘Mugshots’. 

I am glad to see that these two historic buildings have been preserved and re-purposed in different ways. I sometimes wish that there were as many historic jails open to the public as there are historic houses. The history of the penal system in Canada is still relevant today, as we continue to experiment with reforming prisoners and continue to experience difficulties housing them.

Let me know in the comments if any historic jails are open to the public in your hometown!


  1. I stayed at Carleton County Gaol for a few days when I visited Ottawa! The ghost tour was cool and creepy. No ghost sightings, but staying in a cell all night reminds you of the dismal conditions prisoners were subject to--very, very small spaces. It was strange to have a dorm-like aesthetic (the bar! the posters! the standard furniture!) overlaid onto a building that you can feel is meant to contain and punish you.

    1. Ooooh you are much braver than me! Not sure I would ever have the guts to stay there....

  2. This took me back to my trip to Ireland! I've been inside Kilmainham Gaol and although it's not local, I highly recommend it. After a long history, it's now a museum. Superb, respectful tour and an intensely memorable place.

    1. I was there several years ago! I love how you can see both parts of the jail - the oldest part from the 18th c. and the newest part that was built to encourage "reforming" prisoners. Maybe that's where my love of historic jails started?