It is likely difficult to imagine, but the web of public roads that form numerous residential city blocks in New Westminster’s Sapperton area cover the large area that used to be British Columbia Penitentiary.
The former footprint of the federal prison, also known as BC Pen, is immediately northeast of Glenbrook Ravine Park, with the first structures — including the Gaol Building — constructed in 1878.
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This was during a time when the region’s activity was centred in New Westminster, which had just years earlier ended its short stint as the capital city of the Colony of BC. The City of Vancouver was only incorporated eight years after the opening of the prison, and BC was still in its infancy as a province of Canadian Confederation.
There were only about two dozen prisoners when the facility first opened, but through expansion over the subsequent decades the population size grew to a peak of nearly 800 prisoners.
According to archival records in New Westminster Public Library, at its full buildout the prison grew to nearly a dozen buildings, including chapels and a hospital.
Farm, exercise yard, and a school facility were also contained within the prison. A workspace building was initially used as an industrial sewing production line.
Eventually, this became a maximum security prison, enclosed by a 30-ft-tall wall made of rock, which was eventually replaced by a 40-ft-tall wall made of concrete and overlooked by guard towers.
Executions were held at the penitentiary, when the death penalty was still a legal course of punishment.
Overcrowding became an issue for the prison and repeatedly contributed to several violent incidents over the facility’s final two decades involving riots and hostages. The most severe incident occurred in Fall 1976 when a week-long riot incident resulted in severe damage to the facility. The army was called in to help put an end to the crisis.
The federal government permanently shuttered the penitentiary in early 1980, after completing the process of transferring prisoners to Kent Institution in the Fraser Valley, which reached completion the previous year as a key strategy to modernize the corrections system.
Later that year in the spring, the prison’s gates were opened up for an open house, attracting approximately 85,000 people over the course of two weeks.
The dominating concrete walls eventually came down, and most of the buildings — apart from a handful of structures including the Gaol and Gatehouse buildings — were demolished.
The Gaol building, previously the prison’s Main Hall and hospital, has seen retrofits for use as commercial offices.
The castle-like Gatehouse building, which served as the main entrance into the penitentiary, is now a neighbourhood hub, with tenants such as Sunshine Montessori Daycare and Preschool, and Royal Crown Castle restaurant and pub.
Roughly 1,000 homes — a combination of single-family dwellings, townhouses, and multi-family buildings — are now built on the prison’s footprint and the peripheral buffer areas between the prison walls and adjacent properties.
The ravine and the penitentiary’s cemetery, located on the south side of the ravine, are now owned by the City of New Westminster as a public park. Natural greenery was allowed to return in the ravine after the prison closed.
Just southwest of the penitentiary, on the other side of the ravine park, is the former site of Woodlands Hospital, which also opened in 1878 as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum.
The mental health facility was shuttered in 1996, and its buildings were subsequently demolished for the new Victoria Hill neighbourhood with over 1,000 homes. Two long-term care and health-related facilities remain on the site, next to the Woodlands Memorial Garden.
The construction of SkyTrain Millennium Line built in a section of track at the eastern portal of the New Westminster tunnel that allows for the future addition of Woodlands Station to serve the new residential density, but this was never realized.
The largest prison facility in BC is currently the Okanagan Correctional Centre in Olive. It is also the newest facility, completed in 2016 at a cost of about $140 million. The high-security prison can hold about 900 prisoners within 378 cells over a facility floor space exceeding 300,000 sq. ft.
For present day photos on the current condition of the remaining buildings of the BC Penitentiary, click here.