Old jail to be turned into apartments

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The old Chatham Jail and Courthouse will be open for tours this summer. It’s a chance for a last look inside the venerable facility before the place is gutted and turned into apartments.

Tour historical incarceration while you still can

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Chatham’s jail is about to be repurposed into a high-end apartment complex, but history buffs will have one last chance to tour the 175-year-old landmark.

Beginning this week, six tours will be conducted weekly until September. Tours will be held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Project manager Les Lonsbary, who is developing the property with business partner Ed McLaughlin, said the exterior will remain the same, but the interior will be gutted and new apartments will take shape.

The same thing will happen at the former four-storey courthouse next door to the jail, he said.

“Ultimately, this is a business venture, but we wanted to give people a chance to have a last look at the building,” Lonsbary said.

“This is something we love, to take a diamond in the rough with beautiful bones and structure and great character and bring it back to life,” Lonsbary explained. “We can allow people to live in here but still keep this significant piece of history for Chatham.”

Along with an overgrown prisoner’s yard, tightly compressed cellblocks, dark passageways and stone walls, the former high-ceilinged federal courtroom and upper-level Kent Law Association library remain intact. Accented by intricate wood carvings, the faded chairs and tables where the judge, jury and accused sat stand in silent tribute to many decades of law and order in Kent County.

Designed by Canadian architect William Thomas, the neoclassical limestone structure features a balustraded balcony and a crowning cupola. During its construction, future Canadian Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie worked on it as a stone mason.

The jail closed in 2014 and local prisoners are now transported to the South West Detention Centre in Windsor.

The jail, which housed prisoners for 164 years, was designated a heritage site in 2003. It was purchased from the province by the Warrener family who sold it to its current owners.

Lonsbary pointed out the public has a fascination with crime shows and movies, and the Chatham jail plays into that.

“Who doesn’t love the Shawshank Redemption in the old jail setting?” Lonsbary asked.

The Chatham Jail is having its own cinematic moment.

Thanks to a horror movie titled “Fresh Meat,” the structure will be immortalized for all time. Filmed by Daniel and Christian Torres of London the movie is slated for released in 2025. The pair rented the entire building for three months in 2023 to make the film, as evidenced by fake blood splattered throughout the building.

Three retired corrections officers who worked at the Chatham jail will act as guides for the summer tours, leading the curious through the imposing structure, sharing their experience of safeguarding prisoners while telling the building’s story.

Loris Arthurton, who worked at the jail for 20 years, is one of the former guards who will lead tours. He joins Dave Arnold and Phil Gavin in the initiative.

The jail, which normally held 50 to 55 inmates, was a decent place to work, Arthurton told The Voice.

“It was a good place to work if you followed the procedures; it wasn’t hazardous,” he added. “I treated them (inmates) as people and I gave them respect unless they didn’t give it to me.”

The former corrections officer said two incidents stand out in his mind. One involved an escapee who kicked a hole in the ceiling and shimmied down a drainpipe. The man was caught the next day after stealing a car and getting into an accident.

The other involved a so-called riot in the 1990s when all of the inmates got stoned on drugs that were smuggled in.

“They were high all night and all the next day,” Arthurton said, adding prisoners went wild breaking water pipes and starting fires in their cells.

“It wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” he added.

To book a tour, visit eventbrite.ca and search for Chatham-Kent courthouse. Cost is $20 and pre-registration is required.

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