The Past & The Present of The Ontario Reformatory, Better Known As The Guelph Correctional Center

The Ontario Reformatory was well known for being the first jail to incorporate punishment rather than incarceration as a form of punishment in young offenders as well as those serving a sentence of two years or less. The Ontario Reformatory was built in 1910 on 1,000 acres of land just on the east side of Guelph. Toronto based architect, John Lyle was appointed to design the unique design of the Ontario Reformatory.

In April 1910, the first 14 inmates as well as two guards, a cook and a farmer were transferred to a farmhouse that sat on the grounds of what was going to be the Ontario Reformatory. They’re built temporary housing for approximately 200 inmates. When the temporary housing unit was complete, inmates were transferred to the Ontario Reformatory to help build the facility that still stands today. Once there was room to house the inmates, more were transferred from Central Prison in Toronto in 1912, making the inmate population about 300. The Reformatory was known for industry operations as well as farming operations, exceeding their expectations. With a spike in the inmate population, both operations were capable of being fully operational by 1913. 

Casual, Crowded Dormitory at the Ontario Reformatory, inmates locked there personal possessions in a Lock Box at the end of their beds

By 1915 there were a total of 21 buildings on the property including an administration building, cell blocks, multiple workshops, a hospital as well as the beautiful landscape on the lands. All of the resources used in the building of the Ontario Reformatory and the landscape came from the two stone quarries, a lime plant as well as a stone crushed that provided the unique stone blocks. The cell blocks were made up of 3 floors with 13 cells and a dormitory on each floor. The dormitories housed the general population with about 20-22 inmates per dormitory. A hospital wing was built into the reformatory and house the criminally insane prisoners. The separate buildings were connected by a mile long tunnel system.

Stone Quarry at the Ontario Reformatory

The Ontario Reformatory had a beautiful terraced garden, dry-stone walls surrounding the property lines as well as breathtaking ponds and waterways built within the quarries. Now that the Reformatory is fully operational, and building is completed, more inmates are transferred from all different jails from across Ontario. The Ontario Reformatory was the largest correctional center in Ontario with a population of 660 inmates only 6 years after the first inmates broke ground.

Stone Walkway to the Terraced Garden

When inmates arrived at the Reformatory, they were assessed at administration and assigned their jobs there. The stronger inmates were assigned to the “bull gang” – the workhorse of manual labor. Behind the facility, inmates built, maintained and ran a large farm, greenhouse. abattoir. cannery,a steam plant, tailor and machine shops and a woolen mill. Products were produced for the public by inmates such as; license plates, picnic tables, clothing, socks and even windows that were used in the building of homes around the city of Guelph. The Ontario Reformatory also supplied all the Psychiatric Institutions in Ontario with baked goods.

Transition to Guelph Military Hospital

Although, 1917 brought on a bad fate for all the inmates being housed at the Ontario Reformatory. Correctional services were suspended at the Reformatory and the facility was converted to the Guelph Speedwell Military Convalescent Hospital. The main goal of the GSMCH was the transformation of sick and wounded veterans into healthy and productive workers. The former jail was transformed to look like a hospital by removing all the bars from the windows and the heavy iron doors, replacing them with curtains. Main rooms were renovated and supplied with either pianos, pool or billiard tables. During the time the facility operated as a Military Hospital, a theater was built behind the main building, with a capacity of 600 as well as two new wings were added as dormitories.

Soldiers Playing Pool in the Billiard Room at the Speedwell Military Hospital

The hospital housed close to 900 patients in 1919, some in a special tuberculosis ward. Nurses started to complain about being overworked compared to civilian workers in 1920, causing many to walk off the job in protest as well as 18 nurses were let go. The decision to close the hospital came as a result. On November 8th, 1920, the last of the staff and patients crossed the bridge connecting the hospital and the Speedwell train station that was later removed in 1941.

Over the next year, the facility is transformed back into a Reformatory, including the bars on the windows and the iron cell doors. Operations kicked back up in 1921 with inmates being transferred back to the Ontario Reformatory. The building of the superintendent’s residence on the Reformatory lands was completed in 1922 along with a church, a better hospital and a larger mess hall. The new buildings along with the addition of the two new wings and the large building behind the main building, the facility reached their largest population of 1000 inmates in 1947.

July 5th, 1952 – The Riot

In the evening of July 5th, a riot involving approximately 600 inmates broke out on their way back from the recreational building. Inmates who did not want to be involved in the riot had gathered on the front lawn where they remained for the night until the riot was settled. During the riot, two guards were held hostage, three guards received minor injuries and the worst incident was an inmate was removed from the commotion and taken to the hospital due to a back injury. Guards believe about half a dozen, possibly more, inmates had escaped.

Map of The Reformatory and Key Parts of The Riot and Locations

Overnight, police were called in to help with the situation, armed with axe handles, they made their way into the wrecked jail. The rioters settled down but not for long. As a couple hours passed, the inmates started to get loud and rowdy again promoting the use of 3 high-pressured water hoses as well as teargas meant to know out 50 people in a small area. Through all of that, the rioters continued. OPP were called in from as far away as Peterborough and Chatham to assist the superintendent at 6am.

Rioting Prisoners Run From the High-Pressured Water Hoses and Tear Gas

With the second floor roof, lined with armed OPP and guards, Superintendent Gerald Wright got the 600 inmates to stop the riot just as fast as they had started. He ordered the inmates to surrender their weapons to a guard through a window in a door and clean up their mess. Most of the inmates involved were between the ages of 16-21, with hopes that they’d never riot again, 121 inmates were charged as a result, most of whom were the leaders of the riot. Following the court proceedings, 50 inmates, belived to be the ‘ring leaders’ were transfered to Nippising.

Inmate hands in his weapon to a guard through the door as Super. Wright ordered them to.

After the riot, the Ontario Reformatory returned back to it’s laid back way and operated as normal with inmates going to their daily jobs. This was until guards started to report frigid temperatures in the cell blocks and a new job was created, covering the limestone walls with brick in the early 1960’s. The Reformatory was flourishing with cows, pigs, horses and vegetable operations by this time. Prompting the Reformatory to hold its first ever Public Exhibition to showcase the philosophy behind rehabilitation in action to the public in October 1962.

An inmate at Guelph Correctional Centre shows off the strength he uses to pry apart jaws of steer skulls at work at Better Beef Ltd.

In 1972, the government no longer felt it was necessary or important to teach farming skills, putting a stop to work in those fields resulting in operations with the stone quarry were shut down and filled with water. This decision also was the reasoning behind the name change of the facility to Guelph Correctional Center. Inmates continued to work in the industries, including a company named Better Beef LTD. The inmates were contracted and worked alongside regular civilians. The Canadian Food and Allied Workers Union (CFAW) caught wind of inmates working in the workplace and stepped in to make a change. 1977 was the year that Guelph Correctional Center and CFAW made a change in history for both the public as well as inmates in the meat cutting industry. The CFAW organized not only for the public but for inmates too, the first legally recognized union. Within five years, a trout-processing plant and bulk-packaging plant opened at the correctional center.

Superintendent, Jim Cassidy inspects the damage in C2.

July 27, 1989 – The Riot They Kept Quiet

Through deep research and key details, the riot of 1989 was discovered. The correctional center didn’t report much on this riot because compared to the riot of 1952, causing over a million dollars in damage. The correctional center as well as the police referred to that night as a ‘disturbance’. 150 prisoners were involved and contained their destruction to C2 and C3 but still managed to completely destroy the cell dormitories. Many of the inmates that were involved that night were transferred without notice to another correction center.

With technology on the rise, and the Correctional Center aging, it was decommissioned in 2002 with Diane Doherty as Superintendent. The facility was getting too expensive to maintain and keep up to standards, as well as the introduction to electronically monitoring inmates, it was time to move the inmates elsewhere and shut the Correctional Center down. All the Inmates were transferred to Central North Correctional Center in Penetanguishene.

Here’s a poem that was written by an inmate, George Harry McGregor at the Ontario Reformatory during the depression, gives a good insight to how the reformatory was back then.

Castle in the Sky
Over the hills off highway seven,
There is a castle, this side of heaven.
Was this place really meant to be?
A prison that is named O.R.G.

I wake each morn in hate and scorn,
A blue denim suit, that must be worn,
Amidst the rumbles and the keepers roar,
I wonder why that one last score.

The history of this institution,
Was heralded as society’s contribution.
Life behind bars is not a fate,
For it’s not too late to rehabilitate.

The fish ponds were built in sweat and toil,
While the farm gang, cultivated the land and soil.
The bull gang had over two hundred men,
This was the saga, a way back when.

The tower had mysteries to unfold,
Of the greatest escape, that was never told.
While down in the tunnel you heard a blast,
The King of Swing was beating an ass.

This was the epic of days gone by,
When boys became men, no time to cry.
“You may break my back”, they would say,
“But not my heart; we’re here to stay.”
– George Harry McGregor

The facility located at 785 York Road, Guelph, On has sat empty since it shut down, other than film crews shooting there and security. A collection of films and shows filmed there are Blindness, Cell 213 as well as Canada’s Worst Driver Season 4. The property that the facility sits on is open to the public to walk around but as for the building, no ones allowed to go in, other than security.

One thought on “The Past & The Present of The Ontario Reformatory, Better Known As The Guelph Correctional Center

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  1. Great read…this was very interesting. Being born, raised and now raising a family of my own here, I’ve always been intrigued by the O.R. We enjoy walking the grounds regularly and every time I wonder what it was like way back then.?? I had an opportunity to tour the Centre back in 1999 as part of my college curriculum, and I’ve had a strong sense of wonder since. This article had a lot of cool information that I was not aware of.


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