When I left home in Sydney, my mother gave me the obligatory ‘be safe’ speech. Of course, being the kind and loving son that I am, rather than saying, “Sure, Mom”, I said, “Every great adventure involves a night in jail.”
I know I was being facetious, and you know I was being facetious, but mom, well, she wasn’t impressed. That said, I didn’t think it would happen so soon; I expected to get up to mischief somewhere more exotic. Say, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea or the Islamic Republic of Iran. (Uh oh, I’m probably on a watch-list now.)
In some parts of the world, people protest against jails because they resemble luxury resorts more than correctional facilities. I can now fully attest to those claims.
It took only one night in Carleton County Jail (Ottawa, Canada) to see it’s a place where people would pay to stay. It has very large cells, hot showers, comfortable beds, good food, great atmosphere, and a feeling that the prison guards genuinely care for the inmates.
Luckily though (and before mom has a heart attack), Carleton County Jail also goes by another name these days. It’s also called the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel. But, wait wait wait… it’s a real jail, and you sleep in real cells with real history. It also has real gallows for hanging anyone who snores at night.
When we first entered, the warden assigned us individual numbers for coded access to the main block. As standard issue, we also received bleach-white sheets, directions to our cells, and a kick up the behind for good measure (okay, maybe that last one was Lauren, not the warden). We made our way up the stairwell, through the thick reinforced doors, along the sombre corridor, to the bars of our not-so-dark-and-dreary cells.
It may sound like a novelty, but it really was an adventure. At 7pm we took the must-do Crime and Punishment Tour to learn about the history of where we’d be sleeping. We learned that a boy as young as 8 was incarcerated in the same place for murder, and other children as young as 7 for larceny. We heard stories of people on death row, people trying to escape, and people hanged publicly in front of thousands of onlookers.
When approaching the Ottawa Jail Hostel from the outside, it’s easy to conclude, “oh, this was a long time ago, too long to imagine.” But then you learn the prison only closed in 1972. Why? For persistant inhumane conditions.
These days, the Jail is impossibly clean and a lot more upbeat. There’s a comfy bar downstairs, where they put on regular barbecues, and enough room to socialise and learn the past sins of your fellow inmates. For those who prefer more private rooms, being a jail, there are lots of single, twin and small group cells. It’s cheap too; from CAD28 per night.
All in all, it would be absolutely criminal not to stay at the Ottawa Jail Hostel when you next visit Canada’s capital city. How often is your hostel interesting enough to talk about for many days afterwards? And in an odd way, it brings you back to Earth a little. It’s humbling to just stand there and visualise children, mentally ill adults, pregnant woman, and the worst of the worst criminals, all mixed in together.