Huffpost Canada ca
Peter Worthington Headshot

Clifford Olson Was King of Kingston Pen

Posted: Updated:

Probably it's a good thing that they are closing Kingston pen -- yet one can't help feeling it's also shutting down a segment of history that has existed longer than Canada has as a nation.

Opened in 1835, Kingston pen is arguably the oldest, continuously used prison in the world, with a grisly record of riots in 1971 and 1954 (which required the army to quell). There've been some 26 escapes in its 177-year history -- not bad, considering. Today it's "home" to some 350 inmates, with an equal number of staff who'll likely soon be out of a job.

Among its notorious inmates were James, of Black Donnellys, sentenced to be hanged in 1859; the Boyd Gang of the early 1950s; and today Russell Williams and Paul Bernardo.

I used to visit Kingston pen throughout one summer about 20 years ago to visit the late Clifford Olson, Canada's most notorious serial killer of 11 young people. The RCMP paid $100,000 to Olson's family for him leading them to hitherto unknown murder sights in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.

Even then, despite additions and refurbishing, it was impossible to camouflage Kingston's aging environment. Prisons are prisons, and all have similar metal detection security and a feeling of claustrophobia.

Even so, I recall dining in the mess hall where the food seemed excellent -- but then I once thought army cooking was gourmet dining, so I'm a poor judge. What I remember most about Kingston was the lifeless depression of those inmates who were able to be outside their cells.

They moved slowly, with resignation. Everyone looked despirited, until on the first occasion I was there Clifford Olson was being escorted somewhere. He had a bounce in his step, eyes probing every direction, cheerfully greeting people, gesturing and not the slightest subdued. The contrast with other inmates was startling.

Over that summer, armed with a tape recorder, I was allowed to meet him regularly in the visitors' area, both of us sitting at a table, no glass shield, me buying a succession of pop and candy bars for him.

Guards would stroll by, and he'd interrupt his monologue to greet them, always unwholesomely familiar, joking, asking after their families and then, when they passed, telling me how well he got on with staff.

At the time I was working on a book about him with radio talk show host Arlene Bynon. Olson was angry at her because she wouldn't come to the pen to visit, on grounds that he might get violent.

In our conversations, Olson would discuss plans for escaping. I made it clear that if he told me anything of consequence, I'd blow the whistle on him. Olson would laugh -- and switch topics.

He was also amused that I felt he should have been executed back in 1982 when he confessed to 11 murders -- and periodically would agree that if were ever freed, he'd likely kill again. He'd express remorse for those he killed, and say he never understood why he did it, because none of the kids he abused ever told on him: "So, I had no need to kill them to shut them up."

Of families who mourned their murdered kids he'd say: "Get over it."

When the great Amerian tort lawyer Melvin Belli made a speech in Toronto, I took him to Kingston pen where he wanted to meet Olson. He agreed to represent him in the U.S. Olson claimed to know the Seattle Green River killer of some 50 prostitutes, and Belli was negotiating how he could give evidence without implicating himself.

Belli and Olson posed for a photograph. In a chapter in the book I suggested it was a case of two psychopaths meeting, one of whom was homicidal. Godzilla meets King Kong. Something like that. Two huge egos. As it turned out, Olson identified the Green River killer as a guy who'd emigrated to New Zealand. He had a snapshot. It was a hogwash.

A car's license plate was visible in the photo, and by tracing it I managed to phone the guy in New Zealand who was a religious zealot who had written Olson hoping to salvage his soul for the Lord. He was a bit surprised to be identified as a serial killer of prostitutes.

Olson fit in well at Kingston. A fish in a sea he understood. Some 50 of his 70 years of life had been spent in prison. In Kingston he was in protected custody with other sexual deviants. For Olson these people were servants. On the phone, he'd call me several calls a day -- one could hear him ordering people around: "Get me my files . . . bring me a chair . . . hey you guys, cut down the noise . . . ."

"Clifford, you sound like you run the place," I'd say.

"Yeah, I do all right -- if you get what I'm getting at," he'd reply.

He was transferred to Prince Albert Pen in Saskatchewan after he was caught with a handcuff key in his rectum. "I was going to escape when I visited the doctor -- and would have come and visited you," he joked.

"Lucky you didn't," I joked back. "I'm not a defenceless little girl."

Olson found that hilarious.

At Kingston, he seemed to have custodian staff figured out. He'd enrage them by his antics and taunts, and if they'd occasionally react inappropriately, he'd file charges against them.

Then before the hearing he'd withdraw charges -- and the guard would be so grateful he'd feel obligated to him. It was vintage Olson blackmail.

Olson died from cancer last year.

Kingston Pen has just received its death notice.

For different reasons, both left their mark on Canada. Neither will be missed.