A felon in Trois-Rivières

When our group got to “the hole,” the prison’s solitary-confinement cell, an elderly man asked the guide for a flashlight. After studying the wall closely, he extracted a crumpled piece of paper from one of the cracks. “Right,” he declared, “this is where the tour ends for me.” And he left the cell.

It turned out that long ago, the man had been an inmate in this very jail. Not only that, he had put in some time in the hole. Knowing that one of his pals was going to have a turn in the hole later on, he had left a note for the guy. But the friend was abruptly transferred to another prison, and never got the message. Forty years later, jammed into a crack in the wall, the note was still there.

New to some – all too familiar to others
A variety of visitors walk the gloomy corridors of the Old Prison of Trois-Rivières, from young and old to foreign tourists and the morbidly curious. And some, like the elderly man, are actually former prisoners, returning not to the scene of their crime, but to the scene of their incarceration.

The prison, which was the longest-operating jail in Canada when it was shut down in 1986, re-opened in August of 22 as a rather unusual museum ― one that’s dedicated to showing visitors what life behind bars was like in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a museum where the guides explain to those from “the outside” what life was like “on the inside.” And they know what they’re talking about. They’re all ex-convicts themselves.

As they lead visitors from cell to cell on a tour of the facility, the guides cover every facet of prison life, from the convict code to the violence, despair, solitude and faith. It’s a fascinating glimpse into prison life that also includes videotaped reminiscences of former prisoners, including well-known union leader Michel Chartrand. 

Preventative effect
Although the tours were designed purely to educate people, they also seem to have a preventative effect on some visitors, who are so disturbed by what they see that they decide then and there they’re never going to break the law.

But then the Old Prison of Trois-Rivières wasn’t exactly known for its comfort. Opened in 1822 and now classified as a historic monument, it was forced to shut down in 1986 for health reasons.

“Before they stopped using it, conditions in ‘the hole’ were straight out of the Middle Ages,” says Claire Plourde of the Québec Museum of Folk Culture, which operates the prison museum. “It had a dirt floor, there were no windows and no light, and prisoners were thrown in there dressed only in their underwear.”

To date, nearly 50,000 visitors have toured the facility. And as of this year, tourists can spend a full night in the prison – an experience Plourde promises is very different from, say, overnighting at the youth hostel in Ottawa, housed in a building that used to be a jail. “We give people a real prisoner-style experience,” she says. “They spend the night in a cell on a real prison bed, and in the morning they get an honest-to-goodness jailhouse breakfast of porridge and cold toast.”

Maybe not solitary confinement, but certainly voluntary confinement…

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at www.travelcanada.ca.