As I lay on the bottom bunk of a six-person jail cell I surprisingly sleep peacefully. There is something strangely safe and secure about being a guest in an old prison. A building that was one constructed to keep people in has now been reconstructed to ensure they stay out. Upon entering the building on the main floor one would never realize they were in a building that was one a jail, the lobby is warm, filled with music, chatter, chairs, posters. It isn't until you check in and receive your passcode, turn around and see the big old wooden door leading into the hostel rooms with a passcode code lock that you really begin to think about where you are. Passing through the big heavy wooden door into the stairwell is when you really realize this building housed criminals. Dimly lit, no windows (at least none that were unbarred) and the metal staircases were connected between with a metal cage to catch any falling people, guards I would assume, but perhaps for prisoner safety as well (though considering the age of the building I very seriously doubt it). It was in this moment the first eerie feeling began to settled through my body. The stairwell was silent, too silent and the only sounds were my boots as they clanged against the metal as I made my climb to level 4.
Again, met with silence, the whole floor was silent, cold and damp. Each sound I made echoed through the corridor, yet the only sounds that followed were my own footsteps on the stone floor and the rolling of my bag behind me as I made my way to cell number 3. The door, was narrow, more so than I'd expected and the bars had been blacked out with a wooden plank to at least give those of us who were staying there the illusion of privacy. The only peek into the room itself was through the top and bottom of the cell door where the natural light could peek through the bars that had been left exposed. Pulling out my key to unlock the call door, I had a bit of difficulty with the lock and pulling it open. It is somewhat ironic that I had difficulty with the door as I had read a review of someone who'd stayed there previously and had a similar complaint but once I got the hang of it, the door was an easy fix.
As it was the middle of the afternoon, the cell was empty, though quite obvious that it had been well lived in. Blankets, beds, sheets, clothes were sprawled over the beds and my lone bunk 4-3 Bunk 1 was neat and tidy, the blanket folded and awaiting my arrival. Settling my things in I locked my bags in a locker and made my bed with the sheets I'd been given before I settled onto my bunk after struggling for a good five minutes to find a light switch (which was located in the middle of the cell at the back, difficult to find in the dark), I glanced around at the other four bunks and began to realise the room had been expanded. What was now a room that housed 6 people, had once been two separate cells, the wall had been torn down between them to offer more room. That's when it all started to churn. What small rooms, how many prisoners had stayed in each cell? Who were they? Was I sleeping in the same place as a murder? Was this death row? The Federal prison is from a time when Canada very much still held law for Capital Punishment, and the jail building even had a functioning gallows (One, thankfully I did not ever have to see). I'd heard the building was haunted, but of course, how could it not be? Not only the lives of the criminals who had been hanged for their crimes (all I could think of was vengeful ghosts are created from violent death), but the criminals who had been killed by other prisoners, the guilty and maybe even innocent parties that had died a natural death in the cold, damp stone rooms.
It was after all these thoughts began to run through my mind I knew I had to get out of the building. Sitting, alone, in the silence was getting to my head. A chill I didn't like had settled into my spine and the nerves were high. As if it weren't nerve wracking enough that it was my first solo trip, and stay anywhere, but once the idea of angry criminal ghosts got under my skin it was safe to say I needed some air, something I wasn't going to find in the enclosed cell. Deciding to explore I locked the cell door behind me and began to make my way around the floor. Found the necessities, the showers, the bathrooms, more lockers. After finding nothing of interest on my floor (it was, after all devoid of any other human beings) I exited back through the level 4 wooden door and down to the common area. The basement of the building was ironically brightly lit with rays from outside. I found through more cell bars a payphone (probably for your mandatory one phone call...just kidding) and the common area. A few chairs, some magazines, a couple old hardy boys books, a tv and some computers.
Connected to the common area was the bar 'Mugshots' where they served us breakfast each morning and each night had a new event going on (That night happened to be Hip-Hop Karaoke blasting through the windows til about 2 am, though I admittedly appreciated the awesome attempted at Jackson 5). The eerie feeling that had been washing over me since I'd stepped through into the staircase was substantially less obvious downstairs, but the rooms were still empty which eventually threw me into a wander of the city. After an eventful evening, sneaking into a dark hostel room at 2 am was difficult, trying not to wake everyone up as you're pulling hard on a heavy iron door was interesting. Luckily it seemed everyone was too tired to notice save for a mumble of hello I got from my bunk mate.
It was this, the first night I slept there that the uneasy feeling. The chill in the spine again, even with the hall lights flooding through the bars, and the hip hop music blasting from Mugshots (the on-site bar), did I feel the cold, damp chill settling over. Last one asleep that night and first one up in the morning I ate and bolted from the place relatively quickly for a day at the beach, though it seemed after the one night of eerie chills, upon re-entering the building each day and night a shred more of confidence came each time. Sleep came easy, hallways gave no chills my thoughts of prisoners did not cease but somehow, I began to feel secure and safe in its halls rather than afraid of what lurked in the shadows. Soon enough navigating in the dark was simple, I could walk into a darkened cell and feel perfectly content with what I was doing. Even noises didn't faze me, creaks, bangs just passed, not unnoticed, but rather without fear or hesitation. As roommates came and went I stayed the consistent prisoner in bunk 1, and though some were more chatty than others all were simple enough to get along with (especially considering most of them only lasted one day before they'd moved on).
Overall, it was a great experience, inspiring and it even ended with my prison tattoo. Kidding! Definitely got it some somewhere reputable, but each time I look at it I'll remember this trip and the tattoo itself has even served as inspiration for my writing. If there were any ghosts, they decided to leave me alone after my first night, or maybe they were hanging out on another floor. The building was cool, the experience unlike any other I've ever had and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's willing to try. Peace Out Ottawa, I'm home now.