The Great Escape
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The Great Escape

A little over two months ago, the Night at the Big House rave—which was to be held at the Old Don Jail—was cancelled at the eleventh hour. It was supposed to be the first of many functions held at the jail whose proceeds would benefit the Bridgepoint Foundation, but due to licensing issues between Bridgepoint (jail’s owner) and the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC; jail’s leaseholder), the rave and all future happenings were put on hold. On Monday, Slingshot—the company hired by Bridgepoint to manage the venue space—bitterly announced no events would be forthcoming. Is anyone else somewhat relieved?

Now, don’t get us wrong. It’s unfortunate and infuriating that Slingshot and all its customers (tourists, party promoters, couples planning their weddings, etc.) had to cancel their plans and incur the accompanying financial and logistical headaches. And, at this point, neither Bridgepoint nor the ORC are commenting on who dropped the ball. But, aside from this, does holding soirées that use incarceration as a party theme—while real people are imprisoned in the new jail next door—sit well with everyone?
If you visited Slingshot’s slick Don Jail site back when everything was rolling ahead as planned, you would have seen their “Inspirations” page that Jonathan Goldsbie pointed out, which listed dozens of prison-themed TV shows and movies to help you plan your jailhouse fun (it’s been since taken down). Oz-inspired corporate team-building event, perhaps?
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During Doors Open, we had the fantastic opportunity to tour the jail, which had before that day been shuttered since 1977. Incredible pains had to be taken to bring the place up to fire code for the thousands of tourists who were expected to, and did, show up for this special viewing (they had to cut open a back door). The inside was dirty and crumbling, but also quiet as a tomb and thick with history. The thought of it being wired with lighting and sound equipment and teeming with party-goers spilling their drinks, spitting their gum, and maybe throwing up in a cell or two…
We wondered if such considerations had anything to do with the decision to halt all affairs and limit access to Bridgepoint-run public tours on selected weekends in August and September. Bridgepoint had no comment on the subject, and the ORC didn’t seem comfortable with the question. When asked if the ORC thought prison-themed parties were disrespectful to inmates of the adjacent new Toronto Jail, their communications advisor Julia Sakas responded with:

ORC manages the Old Don Jail in partnership with Bridgepoint and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and any access must take into account the condition of the facility, the health, safety and security of the public, as well as the continuing undisturbed operation of the Toronto Jail. Efforts are made to contemplate and moderate any impacts on the adjacent operations.

On the other hand, Chris MacKechnie from Slingshot was quite candid when asked the same question. He said:

I guess everyone is entitled to their own opinion regarding how appropriate it is to produce events next to a jail. I believe it is a judgment call that the participants must make. I place it in the same category as having events in a house of worship (Ie. Church on Berkley). To some this is not appropriate. To others it is not relevant.

Does this sound like persecuting the user rather than the dealer? In any case, construction is still slated to begin in late fall, so the public tours in August and September are probably the last events that will take place before the jail is renovated (for information on tours, see Bridgepoint’s web site). In the end, maybe cancelling the raves, weddings, art shows, breakdance competitions, and other planned parties let the Old Don Jail escape with a little dignity.
All photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.