Peel County Jail

Behind Bars

Story written by Julie Middleton - Excerpted from Brampton Guardian, City of Brampton Sesquicentennial Commemorative Publication, November 2003

When it was built, Peel County's jail met provincial standards. But by the time it was condemned in the  early 1980s, it was a decrepit and dingy place, infamous for overcrowding, with buckets serving as toilets in cells.

When Huey Newton, a co-founder of the black rights group the Black Panthers, was imprisoned in the jail for five hot days in June 1977- after being arrested en route from Cuba for charges in the United States- he said the Brampton jail was far worse than any jail he had seen in Cuba.

The little six-cell jail in the sleepy town of Brampton saw few inmates with the status and fame of Newton. Most were small-time criminals, held on assault, theft and vagrancy charges.

 In the mid-1860s, Peel's population was on the increase but, before Peel could separate from the United Counties of York and Peel, legislation required the County have its own courthouse and gaol (Jail). Construction on the jail began in 1866, on land formerly leased by the Fall Fair at Wellington and Main Streets. Many local residents got jobs in building- lumber had to be cut, brick laid and the heavy limestone lining the walls of the jail had to be hauled to Brampton.

By the time the project was finished, it cost Peel $17,500.00.

Despite only minor alterations for wiring and plumbing, the jail remained relatively unchanged for 110 years. Until it was condemned in 1977; prisoners spent their days and nights in the same 9-foot long, 7-foot high and 3-foot wide cells, as they did in 1868.

Inmates slept on straw mattresses, with cells lit by dim kerosene lamps. During the day, they helped in the kitchen and laundry, and broke rocks into small pieces for Peel's road projects. Punishment, not rehabilitation, was the order of the day. But aside from hard labour, the residents lived better than many in Peel. They received three meals a day, heat in the winter and free medical attention. In the depths of winter, a few homeless would purposely get caught stealing to guarantee shelter from the cold streets.

The capacity of the jail was 30, but it was often packed with as many as 60 men and women.

There were no poor houses or homeless shelters in Peel, and even a hospital was far outside the city, so those found on the streets, often ill or elderly, would get sent to the jail. In 1882, a sick man was arrested as a "vagrant," and died shortly after in his jail cell. During the inquest into his death, the newspaper reported, "In jail he was locked without light, warmth, nursing or nourishment such as his case demanded... The jury were of the opinion that the treatment of Clark was not humane...and that the jail is no place for the infirm and destitute persons, whose only failing is being poor and homeless."

In 1896, the Women's Christian Temperance Union of Brampton and Port Credit pressured County Council to find better accommodation for the "destitute" than the jail. Three years later, a House of Refuge was built on the land where Peel Manor now sits.

Even after the House of Refuge was opened, followed by a hospital in 1925, the jail continued to be used as a shelter for the homeless.

In 1909, the jail held its first execution. Stefan Swyrda, declaring his "innocence up to his last breath" was hanged in the presence of about a dozen people. There were two more hangings, in 1941 and 1946.

The governor of the jail stayed in an apartment on the top floor. Upon his retirement, former governor Joe Mitchell (1943-1961) told the newspaper, "The apartment we had in the jail was roomy and attractive but, being in the same building; we never had the feeling of getting away from my work."

Each year, the jail was inspected by a provincial Grand Jury and, for the last couple decades of operation, it was annually condemned. In 1968, the Grand Jury made a particularly scathing report. It commended the work of the governor and his staff, but called for the immediate abolition of the building.

"It is hard to express the utter distaste this monstrous anachronism arouses," said the report. "The kitchen equipment belongs in a pioneer village or museum... The jail is hopelessly understaffed... The cook and utility man double as guards when necessary... There are no mattresses of any sort on the steel spring beds...Some of the prisoners are serving from 10 to 14 days because of an inability to pay a fine. It seems barbaric to confine this type of prisoner in the quarters we inspected..."

The following year, the province took control of Ontario's 37 county jails, or "county buckets," as they were called by inmates.

An inmate started a fire in a foam rubber mattress in 1976, only a week before some of the prisoners were due to be moved to a new remand facility at the Mimico Correctional Centre.

"A look inside Peel County Jail" - courtesty of Regional of Peel Archives