millbrook prison – lockdown

Prisons are not something usually associated with Canada, but even a country stereotyped as friendly and polite needs someplace to put all its evildoers.  Though Canada is not usually associated with the sort of violent criminal activity that has become expected in certain parts of its neighbor to the south, there are occasionally some people deemed as especially dangerous to be found up north. Naturally, with time, some of the prisons built to house these high-risk inmates become derelict, leaving behind huge, empty complexes which are difficult to reuse and stubborn to try to demolish.

The wide open farms of eastern Ontario spread out in front of us after we sped past the Toronto city limits, gunning our little Chevy down the 401.  The four of us in the car were heading into rural Ontario on the trail of an abandoned maximum security prison, formerly a place whose name once struck fear into the hearts of teenage hooligans and serial murderers alike: Millbrook Correctional Centre, known to its inmates as simply ‘the Brook’.

Millbrook’s back wall kept two worlds separate for 46 years. Shot on Kodak Ektachrome 100VS

Located far from any real population centers in the woods east of Toronto, Millbrook Correctional Centre was designed to be where Ontario (and occasionally the rest of Canada when there was a need) kept its most violent prisoners.  Opened in 1957 in response to a massive riot that ripped through Guelph Reformatory, Millbrook was purpose built to house the baddest of the bad, the inmates who could not be held anywhere else in the system.  Murderers and violent thugs rubbed shoulders with career burglars and rapists, eventually also mixing with people convicted of lesser offenses like drug crimes, simple assaults, and immigration violations. As increased loads placed on the prison system sent more and more people to the Brook, capacity increased from 268 to almost 500 inmates. 

Regardless of their crimes, new prisoners were tossed into solitary confinement upon arrival in what came to be called the Ontario Plan. Under a part of the Plan known as the Progressive Stage System, an inmate’s stay was divided into three phases, with the initial one being the most draconian.  Upon arrival at Millbrook, inmates would be put on a so-called ‘special diet’ for sixteen days: no letters, phone calls, or visitors; 24-hour-a-day lockdown inside a cell, and nothing to pass the time but a Bible. With good behavior and time, they were rewarded in later phases with things like library privileges, smokes, visitors, yard time, and at the top level, one outgoing letter a week and the opportunity to take correspondence courses from within the prison.

Conditions at Millbrook were notoriously harsh.  Things like personal toiletries and sweets were contraband, and the guards strictly regulated every detail down to how the inmates slept in their beds.  Part of the Ontario Plan meant “troublemakers” were classified (though not segregated in housing) into three groups: one for discipline problems, one for convicted sex offenders, and a third for inmates deemed to be homosexual. Psychological help and treatment was hard to come by, the staff overworked and underpaid.  In April of 2001, a 50-year-old Vietnamese immigration prisoner named Nguyen Cao Son died under ‘suspicious circumstances’ – sparking a hunger strike by around 60 inmates being held for related immigration offenses. In March of 2001, prisoners broke into one of the prison’s control rooms and unlocked a wing’s worth of cells – releasing 39 convicts into the halls of the jail. The inmates tried unsuccessfully to reach the outer yard, and after a few hours of rioting, finally returned to their cells. This incident, along with worsening labor relations between the provincial government and the Ontario public servants’ union made keeping the prison open harder and harder. Sure enough, by the end of 2003 Millbrook was shut down, the prisoners transferred away to jails in Kingston and Lindsay.

We climbed the hill through the trees to the prison, and slowly the imposing three-story-high brick walls came into view. All the doors were welded shut, and a walk around the perimeter quickly revealed our options were limited. After all, this was a compound designed to keep the world inside totally separate from what was outside. It was a fortress. But as with all castles, the walls were eventually breached. We found ourselves a well-placed chink in Millbrook’s armor, and into the penitentiary we went.

Inside, the prison was eerily chilly. The thick walls of cinder blocks and reinforced concrete insulated the cold air inside from the warm spring sunshine. One hallway was covered in a layer of ice two inches thick, trapping a fire hose in its grip.  Mid April didn’t seem so bright inside the bone-chillingly cold halls of the prison.

The prison’s maximum security wings were wide open, all the cell doors locked ajar by the last wardens to leave. The slots in the doors would have been the inmates’ only portal to the outside world, save for a window that looked out on the yard. No doubt a depressing way to spend 20 years to life.

Millbrook’s Solitary Confinement wing – known nowadays as a SHU (Special Handling Unit).

The prison was a self-sustaining city of sorts, maintained largely by the inmates themselves as part of the Ontario Plan’s emphasis on rehabilitation through education and vocational training.  Within its walls were kitchens, medical facilities, and a machine shop that, until 2000, made most of Ontario’s license plates.  An equipment malfunction that year left the province short of plates by 100,000 or so.  When three outside workers were brought into the prison to help make up the difference, all sorts of health and safety types cried foul, and the presses fell silent soon after, with production shifting to a private contractor.  It was one more thorn in the side of the wardens, and only added to government pressure to close the facility.

The beauty of an abandoned prison is that when all the doors are left open, one can see both sides of the same coin. The guards at Millbrook enjoyed several towers where they could survey the sprawling complex of buildings. Central locking stations, like the one the prisoners stormed in 2002, made their jobs easier and arguably a bit safer, allowing all the doors in a given wing to be controlled from a single room rather than risking an inmate stealing the keys. At the time Millbrook was built, these central monitoring systems had only begun to make their debut onto the penitentiary scene, and the new prison received the state-of-the-art systems as they were developed.

We escaped Millbrook without being descended on by the black helicopters of the Ontario Provincial Police (which, I’ve been told, besieged a team that went a few weeks prior to us) or the residents of the town itself. Our attention turned back to the glittering skyscrapers of Toronto, titans that begged us to stand upon their shoulders, their skeletons of concrete, steel and glass towering above us like giant futuristic sentinels. We would soon oblige them.

See more postcards from the joint right here.

**Update – 24 May 2015***

I have received word from Ontario that Millbrook Correctional Centre has finally begun to fall to the wrecking ball. After spending more than $70,000 every year since its closure on the site, the provincial government found the means and time to level the complex piece by piece.

From the demolition plan:

“This project involves the deconstruction and demolition of the main complex of buildings and fire training tower as well as the removal of all roads including the main “ring” road, transformers, septic beds and lagoons, all wells and storm water management systems. The design approach was first to de-construct the site by identifying what can be reused/recycled/diverted from landfill. Environmental remediation work was identified in a phase 1 and 2 ESA and is included in the scope of work. This work includes the clean up in the lagoons, septic beds, former dumpster area, onion field and sand pit, creek area, powerhouse area and sludge beds. Work will also be required under the fire tower.”

Though plans for its reuse have not been finalized, sources indicate that either a local sports center or a large-scale marijuana grow-op are both potential contenders for the site’s final disposition.

Check out some current photos of Millbrook’s dismantling over at Jermalism (scroll down to the bottom for the demolition pics).