Nestled along the shores of Lake Ontario lies a fortress few Canadians know about outside of rap songs and crime documentaries. Millhaven Institution, with its double razor wire fences and foreboding architecture, is home to some of Canada’s most dangerous offenders.
Originally envisioned as a replacement for the crumbling Kingston Penitentiary, Millhaven has developed a reputation as the country’s toughest penitentiary over its 50+ year history. The “Big House” houses killers, terrorists, biker gang members and other violent inmates within a labyrinth of reinforced cells, barricaded guard posts, and constantly monitored common areas.
For many inmates, a sentence at Millhaven is seen as a rite of passage – proof that you should not be taken lightly in Canada’s criminal underworld. But make no mistake – beyond the lore and legend is a volatile atmosphere simmering with tension and violence that occasionally erupts to deadly effect.
History and Background
Millhaven first opened its doors prematurely in 1971 after a deadly riot at Kingston Penitentiary forced corrections officials to accelerate construction on the new facility. In the early years, alongside its general population, Millhaven housed some of Canada’s most disorderly inmates in a notorious Special Handling Unit. This early supermax wing operated until 1984 when a new, centralized facility opened in Quebec.
Over the next few decades, Millhaven continued to house federal inmates from the Ontario region, including the intake and assessment unit tasked with evaluating new inmates’ security risk and needs. In 2013, Millhaven also took on additional maximum security inmates from the recently shuttered Kingston Pen. To accommodate these new prisoners, an additional 96-bed unit was built within the existing compound.
Today Millhaven fulfills a few key functions in Canada’s correctional system:
Facility Layout and Units
The sprawling Millhaven complex in Bath, Ontario contains two main institutions – the maximum security Millhaven Institution, and the medium security Bath Institution located on the same federal property.
Millhaven itself comprises three primary inmate living units plus a former segregation wing and hospital. The units house about 120 inmates each, predominantly in austere double cells lining long ranges with hydraulically controlled doors.
The main living units are:
Intake and Assessment Unit
This area houses new inmates sentenced to federal time in Ontario. Correctional staff assess the prisoners’ security risk, program needs and medical concerns before assigning them to appropriate facilities elsewhere.
Maximum Security Unit
Considered among the toughest wings in Canada’s prison system, the MSU (or J Unit) confines the system’s most violent and disorderly inmates – many with life sentences. Locked down 23 hours per day in this “gladiator school,” one must be constantly vigilant to survive.
Special Needs/Segregation Unit
Housing inmates with physical health issues or requiring protection from others, the I Unit also functions as an administrative segregation area. Among its current population are inmates with mental illnesses transferred from the now closed Kingston facility.
Notable Events and Controversies
Given its clientele, Millhaven has been no stranger to violence and disorder over its history.
1972 Mass Escape
In July 1972, fourteen inmates exploited vulnerabilities in the outdoor yard fencing and managed to break free from custody. An immense police and military manhunt eventually led to recapture of most escapees. However, the brazen breakout highlighted early oversights in the new prison’s security apparatus.
1975 Hunger Strikes
Seeking better living conditions and reforms to Canada’s penal system, large numbers of Millhaven inmates launched hunger strikes and work stoppages in 1975 on the anniversary of a prisoner suicide. These escalated to include solidarity job actions at other regional facilities – signs of wider unrest.
1985 Warden Death Threats
When a strict new warden transferred from Manitoba to take charge of Millhaven in 1985, credible death threats from unknown inmates forced police protection details for him and his family. The threats underscored tensions between reform-minded officials and entrenched prisoner power structures.
2004 Weapon Attacks
After an Alberta court ruling affirmed inmates’ rights to arm themselves in self defense, correctional officers reported a spate of inmate weapon attacks at Millhaven in 2004. The decision sparked controversy over the appropriate limits of inmate liberties in maximum security environments.
In one of the facility’s most explosive episodes, a major riot broke out in May 2009 triggered by conflicts between inmate groups. While authorities managed to quell the violence in under 24 hours, the disturbance highlighted the powder-keg volatility simmering under Millhaven’s surface.
In recent years, a correctional manager was arrested for smuggling drugs to inmates on behalf of the Hells Angels biker gang, highlighting corruption vulnerabilities with maximum security populations. Additionally, advocates have challenged conditions for mentally ill prisoners transferred from Kingston after its closure.
Security and Surveillance
Given its high profile occupants, Millhaven utilizes an array of overt and covert security measures to maintain control. Razor ribbon fences, overwatch guard posts and perimeter patrol vehicles defend the outer boundaries against escape attempts.
Visitor and Inmate Searches
All visitors face thorough personal and vehicle screening upon entrance to the property. ION scanners check for traces of drugs or contraband. Investigative surveillance techniques further deter contraband smuggling and monitor inmate communications.
Inside the facility, an extensive CCTV camera network provides visual coverage of critical areas like ranges, common spaces and visiting rooms. Listening devices embedded in visiting tables can covertly pick up inmates’ conversations with visitors.
Inmate Work Programs
In addition to its security role, Millhaven also focuses on keeping prisoners constructively occupied through work programs like CORCAN. In these factories, inmates produce furniture, textiles and other items for federal agencies while earning small wages to offset room and board expenses.
Connection to Popular Culture
As Canada’s best known maximum security correctional institution, Millhaven has spawned references in literature, music and folklore:
References in Music and Books
- The Tragically Hip’s song “38 Years Old” fictionalizes a prison escape.
- Comedian Bruce McCulloch’s album features a caller to a sports radio show complaining he can’t watch games while locked down at Millhaven
- Notorious bank robber Stephen Reid suggested Millhaven’s foundations on a native burial ground cursed the site to eternal violence
These works underscore Millhaven’s recognition – even notoriety – within Canada’s cultural landscape.
For over 50 years, Millhaven Institution has confined many of Canada’s most violent inmates within its formidable concrete-and-steel confines. As the original facility envisioned to replace Kingston Penitentiary, Millhaven has more than lived up to its maximum security mandate. Prisoners and guards navigate a volatile world poisoned by violent reputations, makeshift weapons, radicalization, and deadly score-settling that periodically erupts into chaos.
While authorities emphasize security and control to contain these dynamics, periodic violence and disorder continue plaguing Millhaven despite its impressive defense arsenal. Critics also increasingly call out excessive isolation, inadequate mental health treatment and other human rights issues. But despite the criticism, as Canada’s most secure correctional fortress Millhaven continues carrying out its mission – tense and unrepentant as the day it opened.
What types of inmates are housed at Millhaven Institution?
Millhaven houses predominantly maximum security inmates including violent offenders, lifers, gang members, terrorists and other dangerous prisoners. A smaller medium security facility called Bath Institution is also located on the same federal property.
How did Millhaven get the reputation as Canada’s toughest prison?
Through a long history of violence, deadly riots, inmate hierarchy clashes, weapon attacks, organized crime influences and extreme solitary confinement – as well as housing some of the country’s most notorious inmates.
What security measures are in place at Millhaven?
The institution utilizes double fences, guard posts, perimeter patrols, surveillance cameras, cell searches, ion scanners and contraband detectors. Visitors also face security checks.
How are inmates kept occupied at Millhaven?
A CORCAN factory located on site provides federal work opportunities where inmates produce furniture and textiles while earning small wages. However most prisoners face very restrictive routines.
Has Millhaven Institution faced recent criticism?
Yes, primarily around corruption enabling contraband smuggling, as well as lack of proper facilities and treatment for mentally ill inmates transferred after the Kingston Penitentiary closure.