eBook review: Cool Heads at Kingston Pen

Review: Ron Haggart (author); Kelly Haggart (editor), Cool Heads at Kingston Pen (ebook), House of Haggart (2012)

Reviewed by Grant Buckler

Review: Ron Haggart (author); Kelly Haggart (editor), Cool Heads at Kingston Pen (ebook), House of Haggart (2012)

Reviewed by Grant Buckler

On April 14, 1971, a group of inmates seized control of a significant part of Kingston Penitentiary, including the “dome” or central control area of the maximum security prison. It was the first time in the history of Canadian prisons that inmates had taken over the command centre of an institution. They maintained control, with six guards as hostages, for almost four days. Two prisoners were killed by other prisoners.

It was an ugly event, but it could have been even uglier, and that fact was made very clear in Attica, N.Y., just five months later. In a similar situation, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller lost patience with negotiations and ordered state troopers to attack Attica Correctional Facility, resulting in the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 guards.

That the Kingston Pen riot did not end as Attica did was probably due to several things, including greater patience on the part of the Canadian authorities. But much credit goes to the negotiating team that worked out an agreement for the hostages to be released as prisoners came out of the occupied prison, some to be transferred to the new Millhaven prison nearby.

A key part of that team was Ron Haggart, then a columnist for the Toronto Telegram. The inmates committee had specifically asked for Haggart to act as a go-between, because they trusted him. He had, as his citation for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s Vox Libera award in 2011 put it, “a reputation for seeking – and telling – the truth that apparently everyone respected.”

The negotiators, with Haggart as the principal liaison to a small committee of inmates, successfully worked out with an inmates’ committee an arrangement whereby groups of inmates would move from occupied parts of the prison into an exercise yard and be taken by bus to Millhaven, with one hostage released along with each group of 60 prisoners.

The resolution didn’t come in time to prevent the savage beating of several prisoners – so-called “undesirables” like child rapists who are normally segregated from the rest of the prison population for their own safety – two of whom died. But it saved the hostages, and most likely the lives of a number of prisoners who would likely have died if the army had stormed the prison as state troopers did south of the border later that year.

Immediately following the riot, Haggart wrote a lengthy account of the standoff for the Telegram, which won a National Newspaper Award. A year later, he wrote a feature for The Globe and Mail’s Weekend magazine, looking back on the events of April 1971.

Ron Haggart died in August 2011. His family have put the Telegram and Globe pieces together in an ebook, Cool Heads at Kingston Pen, now available from Kobo and Kindle. It tells a detailed and gripping story of the events from the moment prisoners grabbed a guard on the evening of April 14 to the trial of instigator Billy Knight.

Putting together two pieces of journalism written a year apart for different publications would sometimes mean too much repetition. That hasn’t happened here. Haggart’s two-part Telegram report is an immediate, more or less moment-by-moment account of his experience during the negotiations, written almost as soon as the crisis was over. The Globe and Mail feature focuses on what went on inside the prison – a story Haggart could not have known in the immediate aftermath, much of which he learned by interviewing Knight some months later.

The first part of the book – the first Telegram story – relates in detail the last-minute haggling and near-disasters that occurred during the negotiated release of hostages and removal of prisoners. At one point more than 200 prisoners crowded into a corridor from which 60 were supposed to be allowed into an exercise yard. One hostage was supposed to be released for every 60 prisoners. Two hundred and six men ended up in the exercise yard, leading to tense negotiations about the release of additional hostages.

Haggart is frank about his role in the negotiations. At one point Barrie MacKenzie, the inmates’ chief negotiator, is asking how much time there is to make a decision. “’It is seven minutes after five,’ I remember saying. In a tiny slit over the prison wall I could see first light.

“’It’s dawn,’ I said, ‘and the army always attacks at dawn.’

“I made it up. I had no idea what the war plan was for invading the penitentiary and I still do not know.”

He has a few harsh words for the authorities, particularly then Solicitor General Jean-Pierre Goyer, whose statement in the House of Commons after the crisis he says misstated key details of the release plan and the way it was negotiated. “In truth,” Haggart writes, “the plan for releasing hostages ‘ from time to time’ originated as much with responsible inmates as with anyone. Without naming names, it would not have hurt the minister to say so.”

And Haggart gives much credit to Barrie Mackenzie, the inmate with whom he mainly negotiated. MacKenzie, he says, had “an endless flow of paranoid fears and delusions,” but nonetheless “brought Kingston Penitentiary under control again when it had gone mad.” Haggart introduces MacKenzie right off the top of the first Telegram story in a classic old-school newspaper lede. “Inside Kingston Penitentiary I met Barrie MacKenzie,” he writes. “He is the bravest man I have ever known and he will hate me for saying so.”

Reporters are generally told to report the story and not become the story. Usually that’s good advice. In this case, a journalist became part of the story – as a direct result of the trust he had earned by focusing on the facts – and his involvement probably helped bring about a much better outcome than might have occurred without him. Once that was done, he went on to report the story, and Cool Heads at Kingston Pen brings that reporting together in one place. It’s both a detailed and readable account of a significant event in Canadian prison – and Kingston – history, and an important example of the work of one of Canada’s great newsmen.


Grant Buckler is a freelance journalist, J-Source contributor and volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and lives in Kingston, Ont.