In their own words: Inmate publications of the British Columbia Penitentiary

By Olivia Cocking

In March 1951, inmates at the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster, B.C. published the first edition of the penitentiary’s bimonthly magazine, Transition. Prison administrators promoted penal publications such as Transition during the 1950s and 1960s as part of a broader initiative to remodel the correctional system around a model of rehabilitation rather than punishment. With subscriptions offered for external readers at the rate of $1 annually, the editorial staff of Transition worked not only to keep inmates abreast of daily life at the penitentiary but also to establish a “feeling of understanding and faith” between prisoners and broader society.

Cover illustration showing an old-fashioned train engine and caboose, a railway station with a sign reading “Agassiz,” and a handcart containing mailbags labelled “BCP”

Front cover of the May–June 1961 issue of Transition magazine (e011311001)

Staffed by an editorial team of inmates and published at B.C. Penitentiary’s own print shop, Transition offered the penitentiary’s residents a chance to voice their views on a wide variety of subjects. Issues of the magazine featured editorials, articles of fiction and critical commentary, as well as coverage of prison sports and entertainment. Recurring columns included one on advice by a Dr. Larrup Loogan, called “What’s Your Beef?” and a section on prison affairs aimed primarily at the inmates, titled “The Inmate Speaks.” Holiday issues of Transition offered a particularly touching perspective, featuring seasonal greetings from inmates to friends and family, as well as reflections on the experience of the holiday season from inside the penitentiary. As one writer in the November–December 1959 issue noted poignantly, “high walls have a way of casting thick shadows across the laughter of a Christmas meant to be bright.”

Cover illustration with text “Merry Xmas,” showing two children in pyjamas facing a fireplace where Christmas stockings are hanging from the mantle.

Front cover of the November–December 1960 issue of Transition magazine (e011311002)

Publications like Transition often faced challenges in balancing the goal of providing an authentic outlet for inmates to express their views within the constraints of administrative censorship. However, given the realities of censorship, one of the most striking features of Transition is the frequency and depth of the critical analyses of criminal justice issues. Columnists discussed policy debates and offered personal perspectives on the effectiveness of Canadian strategies for prisoner rehabilitation. In Transition’s January–February 1959 issue, one columnist contended that Canadian efforts at rehabilitation had failed to live up to their goals, arguing that Canadian penitentiaries did “little but instill in the majority of inmates either a conscious or an unconscious desire to get even with society.” However, not all articles were equally disparaging. For example, a feature in the May–June 1961 issue detailed the positive contributions of B.C. Penitentiary’s blacksmith shop: “The inmate tradesmen in the BCP blacksmith shop are performing a public service that could be performed in no other way and by no one else. This is a fact in which these men can justifiably take pride.”

Cover illustration showing a man sitting at a desk writing a letter with his right hand and holding his head in his left hand, which also holds a lit cigarette.

Front cover of the September–October 1957 issue of Transition magazine  (e011311003)

Drug use and its treatment by the criminal justice system represented another frequent topic of debate among Transition’s columnists. The January–February 1959 issue features two contrasting opinions on the criminalization of drugs. One columnist argued that “the addict is a person who is mentally and morally incompetent” who could not be parted from his criminal tendencies by the legalization of drugs. The other contended that the social problems created by drug use lie in its criminalization, and not in the addicts themselves. As a result, he advocated the legalization of drugs as a government cost-saving measure and a remedy to the culture of criminality surrounding drugs.

Inmate columnists did not restrict their commentary to criminal justice issues. For example, the opening editorial of the 1961 Christmas edition sketches a pointed critique of voter apathy in Canadian elections. The editorial analysis presented by the columnists is especially effective when they highlight the eagerness with which their otherwise disenfranchised fellow inmates participate in Inmates Council elections. As they note, “Possibly they could set an example for the citizens and send forth emissaries to use a little rehabilitation on them.”

Back cover illustration showing a hand holding a cup containing signposts with various messages, such as “What Is A Convict?”, “Inside Looking Out”, “Rehabilitation?”, and “100 Year Failure!” A subscription form is included below the illustration.

Back cover of the January–February 1959 issue of Transition magazine (e011311004)

The vibrant discussion of criminal justice issues found in the pages of Transition reflects a broader debate taking place among policymakers during this period over how to best create an environment for the successful rehabilitation of inmates. This contentious atmosphere placed increasing strain on relationships of prison administrators and the penal press. By the mid-1960s, administrative, financial, and distribution support for penal publications decreased and censorship escalated, marking the decline of a Canadian penal press that catered to an external audience on any significant scale. As a result, issues of Transition published at the height of the magazine’s circulation during the 1950s and 1960s represent an invaluable resource, providing a unique look into the intellectual lives of inmates and an original perspective on criminal justice issues.


Olivia Cocking works at Library and Archives Canada’s Vancouver public service point as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP).

Stony Mountain Penitentiary

By Anne Brazeau

While Manitoba was declared a province in 1870, the Manitoba Penitentiary and Asylum, now Stony Mountain Penitentiary was established in 1871. The penitentiary is present throughout the history of Manitoba. It was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company and was originally located in Lower Fort Garry. The penitentiary incarcerated many significant historical figures such as Poundmaker and Big Bear, who participated in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, as well as several leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

The records

Library and Archives Canada – Winnipeg houses a collection of over two hundred records pertaining to Stony Mountain Penitentiary dating back to 1871. Among these are library records, medical records, records of class attendance, inmate admittance and histories, and administrative letters and diaries. These records, while partly restricted, shed light on the circumstances surrounding those within the correctional system from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century.

A black-and-white mugshot of a slightly balding man with a moustache seen in profile and straight on.  He holds up a sign with the number 1567.

Inmate No. 1567 (MIKAN 4976280)

A black-and-white mugshot of a very young man seen in profile and straight on. He holds up a sign with the number 1585.

Inmate No. 1585 (MIKAN 4976280)

The medical records list the afflictions of prisoners, as well as the prescribed remedies. Some of the diseases have a dated sound to them, like Scrofula (a kind of tuberculosis) and Dyspepsia (indigestion), and several of the antidotes are equally old school: mustard plasters, cigarettes and alcohol.

Library records from the late 1800s list the titles which were available to inmates, providing insight as to what kind of books appealed to criminals around the turn of the last century (thrillers, unsurprisingly, as well as books about military and natural history). Each convict received two blank pages which he could fill with loan receipts.

Classes, conduct and industry

However, many convicts lacked the literacy necessary to partake in the library, and so they enrolled in school. Among the material assigned to inmates taking courses were dictionaries, books on English composition and books on geography. Classes took place nearly every day (save holidays and when the instructor was unavailable) and attendance was recorded in a ledger, with remarks alongside each convict’s checkmarks of attendance. These remarks indicate enormous variety in the competency of those housed at Stony Mountain, as some are recorded as completely illiterate and others as having previously studied algebra. Several inmates are listed as literate only in their native tongues.

The collection has several volumes of Conduct and Industry records, journals in which prisoner misbehaviour and the punishments administered were recorded. Among the in-prison offences listed in the Conduct and Industry books were talking whilst bathing and step-dancing in a cell. Some conduct which was obviously unacceptable, for instance being in possession of a knife, received oddly scant punishment, in this case a reprimand. However, one convict, for having left his work station without permission and having talked out of turn, received a punishment of 21 consecutive meals of bread and water taken in his cell with his hands tied to the cell gate. Another, who tried and failed to escape, received the same treatment as well as a literal ball and chain.

Inmate Histories

The highlights of the Stony Mountain Penitentiary records are the inmate histories. They list the name, religion, occupation, marital status, crime, and sentence of inmates. The very few women inmates have their occupation listed as ‘female’. One Jewish Englishman sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder was listed as a cowboy.

While the inmate histories begin in the 1870s, those dating from the twenties onward provide all the same information, as well as physical descriptions and mug shots. Such images serve as effective reminders of just how young most of these people were at the start of their terms (usually between the age of 18 and 22). These more recent histories accompanied by photographs contain information pertinent to people who may still be living, may have died fewer than twenty years ago, or otherwise were not born more than one-hundred-and-ten years ago, and so much of these records are, for privacy’s sake, restricted to the public.

The institution is woven into Manitoba’s history and its records could feasibly be used in the study of corrections and perhaps of prison reform. They are a glowing example of the very neat archival material housed at the Winnipeg branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Related links


Anne Brazeau is an FSWEP student working at Library and Archives Canada – Winnipeg.

Kingston Penitentiary: Home to Canada’s most notorious criminals

Canada’s oldest penitentiary opened on June 1, 1835, under the name “Provincial Penitentiary for Upper Canada.” Located in Portsmouth, now part of Kingston, this institution was designated for the incarceration of prisoners from both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Kingston Pen, as it is commonly known, closed its doors on September 30, 2013.

Who were the inmates over the course of the penitentiary’s 178 years of existence? To discover their stories, consult the Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers, which have been digitized and can be viewed on the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website.

The ledgers provide photographs (mug shots) of inmates and information such as name; alias; age; place of birth; physical description; occupation; crime committed; and date, place and length of sentence.

Sample page, Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers.

Sample page, Kingston Penitentiary inmate history description ledgers. Source

To find the pictures of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at the Kingston Penitentiary, search for a person’s name in the Archives Search menu.

  1. On the left of the screen, under Archives Search, click on the Advanced option. The advanced search screen will appear.
  2. Type the word Kingston in the first search box, leaving the default “Any Keyword” in the drop-down menu. In the second search box, type the surname of the inmate, leaving the default “Any Keyword” in the drop-down menu.
  3. From the Type of material drop-down menu, select Photographic material.
  4. From the Online drop-down menu, click on Yes, then click on Submit. Your search will generate a list of results.
  5. Select an underlined title to access the full description of the photograph. The descriptive records display images of photographs that have been digitized.

Where else to look

Census returns, the official record of the population of Canada, also list the inmates who were incarcerated at the time of the census enumeration. In addition, nominal indexes can be searched for a reference to an inmate’s name. Remember that spelling variations are common.

Search for books on the Kingston Penitentiary and other Canadian penitentiaries in AMICUS using the author’s name, the book title, or subject keywords such as Kingston (or name of the city), penitentiary, prisons and criminals.