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Bordeaux Prison — Montreal Then & Now

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By Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca

In 1891, the city of Montreal purchased land in Bordeaux (now the borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville) for the construction a new prison to replace the outdated 1820s Pied-du-Courant prison, located in the Ville-Marie borough.

The prison, one of the few Pensylvanian styled prisons in Canada, was designed by Jean-Omer Marchand and R.A. Brassard, and built between 1908 and 1912, at a cost of $2.5 million, an astronomical amount in 1912.

On 18 November, 1912, the Montreal Detention Centre opened its doors for the first time for 100 prisoners.  It was then, as it is now, the largest provincial prison in Quebec, it was built to hold 500 prisoners, but now has a capacity of 1,189 inmates.  The star-shaped building consists of a central 12-sided domed hub from which spring six cellblock wings that feature large outside cells ranged along the exterior walls. The new jail was going to take the name of Bordeaux prison, included state-of-the-art workshops, placed at the heart of the prison, in front of the cellblock and on both sides of the administration building.  The whole complex stands within a five-sided compound surrounded by a double wall.

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In 1912, the tiny cells caused outrage amongst the general population that prisoners should be treated to such ‘outrageous’ comfort, in that each cell was furnished with a bed, a small desk, a window and a flushing toilet, and was supplied with electricity.

When the prison was opened, the guards were nearly all retired soldiers, and not necessarily trained to be prison guards. To secure the transfer of prisoners, the Quebec government ordered the construction of an armoured vehicle. Over the years (between 1914, and the end of capital punishment in Canada in 1960) there have been 82 hangings.  A death flag flew and a chime was rung seven times to announce the execution of a man and ten times to announce the execution of a woman. The official Hangman of Canada was based at the Bordeaux prison, and more hangings were carried out here than at any other Canadian institute. The public was allowed to attend hangings up to 1935, by invitation. However, after the botched execution of Thomasina Sarao at Bordeaux Jail in 1935,  this practice was ended. A miscalculation of her weight given to the hangman, led to her being decapitated.

The death penalty was removed from the Criminal Code in 1976 when Canada abolished capital punishment in 1998, replacing it with a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for 25 years for all first-degree murders.

Escapes and riots also marked the history of the institution. The first escapee was Joseph Masse, who escaped on July 8, 1916. Another one known for his spectacular escape, was Richard “The Cat” Blass, a gangster and murderer, who with eight other prisoners managed to flee during transport, by pointing a gun at the driver of the van.

The prison currently houses male inmates sentenced to less than two years of imprisonment as well as prisoners awaiting their trial.

Bordeaux Prison is located at 800 Gouin Blvd. West, Montreal

Source: City of Montreal / The Canadian Encyclopedia /

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