Can you sleep a wink when you’re in the clink?
Sometimes a city getaway calls for luxury and culture. Other times it’s more fun to text your parents and tell them you’re in jail.
When it opened in 1862, the Carleton County Gaol cast an imposing, impressive shadow on the landscape. Whether you want to call it a “gaol” (as in the old Canadian – and current British – spelling) or “jail,” living conditions were considered pretty appalling regardless. There wasn’t much for prisoners to do; some might have been lucky to pass the time chopping wood or shovelling snow. The inhumane conditions persisted over time until it finally closed in 1972. It reopened as a hostel on August 2, 1973 and today, as the (Hostelling International) HI-Ottawa Jail, it welcomes visitors from all over the world.
Upon approach, the stone wall that surrounds the jail seems low by today’s standards – nothing you couldn’t scale if you were desperate enough. The entrance reveals an ominous set of steep steps. The courtyard is quiet; serene, even. In one corner there are the stocks, which you must pose in.
Inside the lobby, bits of of historical archives on the wall offer some historical insight, including what an inmate’s daily rations where and the “punishment handbook” that remains behind glass. Bike rentals are also kept here.
Once you check in you’ll be handed your bedding – prisoner style – to take to your room and put on yourself (some beds are already made up). You’ll also receive a ticket with the WiFi password and key code. The code changes daily so if you’re staying for more than one night you’ll need to get the code of the day from the front desk. You’re responsible for stripping the bed in the cells (though some of the private rooms don’t require this. Ask if you’re unsure). Rooms are furnished in basic Ikea style but are comfortable and clean. Depending on the type of “room” you want you can confine yourself to an authentic nine-by-three-foot cell or more spacious double or quad (shared cells are sorted by all-female, all-male and coed). Some rooms have shared bathrooms but the private rooms are equipped with a bathroom or kitchenette.
After breakfast – which, in traditional hostel style, is included – sign up at the front desk for the 11 a.m. tour. It’s intriguing and ominous. You and your tour group will stand shoulder to shoulder in solitary confinement, pass through death row and down into the gallows, where some sickly stories are told. Part of the tour does include a few ghost stories, although the guide won’t be specific. That way if you experience a bit of punitive paranormal activity, staff can confirm for you if you’ve had an actual ghostly encounter.
The hostel has its own parking lot ($12 a day) or you can park underground across the street at the Rideau Centre. You’re within easy walking distance of key Ottawa landmarks including the Byward Market, Parliament Hill and a number of museums, notably the National Gallery of Canada. If you’re a backpacker or just trying to live off a backpacker’s budget, go to the market hungry and save room for anything from pub food and local produce to artisan cheese and BeaverTails.
Finally, if you find yourself booked with a noisy bunkmate (even if it’s your partner), the front desk offers free earplugs. Enjoy your inn-carceration.