National | ABC National – Canadian Legal Affairs
Wednesday April 14, 1971
Billy Knight sat quietly at one of the folding card tables at the back of the gymnasium. With his dark brown jacket, khaki colored pants, striped shirt and black boots, he looked like every other guy in the room as he glanced at the well-worn playing cards held by his nicotine-stained fingers. , then to the clock behind the tattered basketball net. He was considering his next move.
Two portable televisions were located in the center of the cinder block gymnasium. A television show was in progress. It could have been Hawaii Five-O or The mod team, two current favorites of the group. Or maybe it was a replay of Gunsmoke. It didn’t really matter because, with little else to do, the men stared impassively at the screens. It was a marked difference from the day before, in Game 5 of the quarterfinal series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers. The series was tied at two. Popular Leafs players including Dave Keon, Paul Henderson and Darryl Sittler faced compatriots Tim Horton and Mike Robitaille on the Rangers. Guys sitting in the gym lived for Hockey night in Canada. It was the only thing that kept them away from the deafening routine of prison life. But it was frustrating when the games dragged on and they couldn’t stay to watch. The televisions were off precisely at 10:30 p.m., no matter what. It was the rule.
A total of seventy-eight men from rank two were gathered in the prison gymnasium that night. William (Billy) Knight, Prisoner # 6622, was one of them. Everyone at KP, as Kingston Penitentiary called it, knew Billy Knight. As the prison barber, he interacted with most of the inmates. Haircutting was a profession he had taken up over the years during his incarceration. Strict adherence to personal grooming was one of the basic rules inside. Hair had to be short and beards and mustaches were not allowed. When inmates emerged from the “hole” or solitary confinement, they were immediately handed over to Knight for the removal of any unruly hair growth. Believing himself to be a trendy guy despite his less than fancy surroundings, Billy’s hair was always meticulously styled into a 1940s pompadour, each strand of wet hair to stand out in a frontal wave high above his forehead. .
A beloved and greedy type, Knight has never shied away from an argument. He was a strong advocate for the revelation of conditions in the prison and always gave impassioned speeches to anyone who wanted to listen to him. If anyone had a grievance with the administration, as many did, they knew they needed to talk to Knight. He was a natural leader among inmates. He even wrote a book, called The walking dead, an autobiography and a presentation on prison life. He said it would revolutionize the system.
Knight was only twenty-eight, but he had already spent more of his life behind bars than outside. Being a nervous little guy, Knight knew that in order to survive in a place like Kingston Pen he had to be smart. Make a bad move or piss off the bad crook and your life belonged to someone else.
As the evening of April 14 wore on, Knight continued to play cards. Scattered around the smoky gymnasium were six other inmates he had recruited to help him carry out his plan. Robert Adams and Allan Lafreniere were seated at Billy’s table. Charles Saunders and Emanuel (Manny) Lester were next. And beside one of the televisions, Brian Dodge and Leo Barrieault seemed glued to what was on the screen, but in reality they were watching the guards.
That night there were ten officers on duty in the main cell block. Three were in the gym and one was stationed in the gun cage that overlooked the entire room. Outside the gymnasium, two guards were on the ground floor of the main dome, which contained a maze of metal stairs and circular galleries. Eight cell blocks with over six hundred cells rose from the dome. Four officers stood in the passages around the perimeter of the dome. They were posted at their respective posts to prepare inmates to leave the gymnasium to return to their cells.
The night watchman, or main watchman, was Edward (Ed) Barrett. At fifty-seven, he had worn the uniform for almost thirty years, and it showed in the deep lines and red veins of his face. Beside him, Douglas Dietrich and Donald Flynn, a loud and overconfident man. William Babcock was another tough screw, and it was his job to keep order and discipline in the gym. Terrance (Terry) Decker, Douglas (dad) Dale and Joseph Vallier were also working that night. Young Kerry Bushell rounded out the group. At twenty-four, he was the recruit of the staff and still in training. At Kingston Pen, you learned on the job and you learned quickly.
In 1971, Kingston Penitentiary had 359 employees, including administrators, support staff, medical staff and guards. Relations between inmates and guards at the Kingston Pen were constantly strained, but in the weeks and months leading up to the night of April 14, 1971, the atmosphere inside the old stone prison had become downright unstable. . The inmates were at war with the guards and the guards were at war with the prison administration. Backed by a powerful union, the Civil Service Alliance, the guards wanted more money, more authority, more training and more protection. The administrators, in turn, encountered an inflexible bureaucracy called the Canadian Penitentiary Service. Somehow everyone was making time.
The guards, for the most part, came from the same poor and working-class backgrounds as many of the convicts they monitored. They received little formal training and had to learn on the job. The fish screws (new guards) were quickly confronted with the contradiction between their limited training at the staff college, which emphasized a new concept of re-education, and the stern attitude of the old guards once they arrived at the prison. . They either had to conform to the rigid stance of experienced staff or be ostracized. New hires have learned to obey the code or find a new career. You did not communicate with an inmate other than to tell him what to do, and you should never show respect or kindness to any inmate. To do so would lead to the instant con-lover tag.
Clinging to an archaic military system of strict order and discipline, seasoned guards reveled in punishing inmates for the smallest offense. Shirts were to be buttoned up and put away at all times; hands had to be removed from trouser pockets when walking; and there was no discussion after 8 p.m. Penitentiary rules stipulated that an inmate could only speak with the officer in charge of him on matters related to his work. He was to approach the officer respectfully, speak to him as Sir, and stand at attention. Get out of the line and you could lose some hard-earned privileges or, worse, you went to the hole.
There was little pride or sense of accomplishment associated with being a prison guard. It was “the occupation of last resort,” the job you’d taken if you couldn’t get anything else. The poor public attitude towards the many prisons in the Kingston area has also contributed to a lack of respect for the wardens in the community. The guards did not wear uniforms in public and their families remained isolated in the city. They were working a lot of overtime due to the constant shortage of staff, but they knew where to get a cold beer after their shift was over. The Portsmouth Tavern, or “the harbors”, in the nearby village, was where you would go to drink if you worked at KP.
The job of a prison guard was dangerous and difficult. New recruits were hard to find and even harder to keep once they got a taste of Kingston Pen. As a result, the prison was often understaffed. And on the night of April 14, 1971, it was a situation Billy Knight intended to take full advantage of.
This excerpt from Murder Inside: The True Story of the Killing Riot at Kingston Penitentiary, published by Biblioasis, is © reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Catherine Fogarty is the founder and president of Big Coat Media, with offices in Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver and North Carolina. An accomplished producer, screenwriter and television director, Catherine has produced award-winning lifestyle, reality and documentary series for Canadian and US networks.