The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail

Lorna Poplak. Dundurn, $21.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4597-4596-4
Historian Poplak (Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada) delivers a brisk study of Toronto’s Don Jail from its origins as a progressive-minded reformatory in the late 19th century to its reputation as Ontario’s “Black Hole of Calcutta” in the 20th century and reopening as a rehabilitation hospital in 2013. Poplak contends that the shift from an ethos of reform to one of punishment in the early 1900s helped to remake the prison’s culture for the worse. He profiles inmates, guards, and prison officials, including George Headley Basher, a “very strict disciplinarian” who oversaw the Don from 1919 to 1931 and viewed corporal punishment (he preferred to call it “spanking”) as “the only way to control violent and defiant prisoners.” Poplak also details numerous escape attempts, riots, and executions, and tracks the deterioration of conditions due to overcrowding. Inquests and grand jury investigations into repeated incidents of brutality became de rigueur at the Don, but the original jail remained in use until 1977, when penal reforms across Canada (which included an abolition of the death penalty) led to its closure. (An east wing built in the 1950s continued to house prisoners until 2013). Poplak’s blow-by-blow account drags in places, but she is a dogged researcher with an eye for telling details. Canadian history buffs will savor the arcane criminal lore gathered here. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 11/23/2020
Release date: 02/01/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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