My Night in Prison

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I woke with a start, not entirely sure what had jolted me into consciousness in the middle of the night. Was it a muffled footstep in the deserted hallway? A disembodied whisper next to my ear? A slight movement in the shadows in the corner of my cell? I shuddered and huddled deeper under the covers, not really wanting to take a closer look.

I had fallen asleep reading in my bunk bed, the light on the wall still burning bright. I switched it off, plunging the cell into darkness. I swear it wasn't this dark last night.

Everything was eerily quiet on the fourth floor, and the only source of illumination at that time of night was in the form of the weak winter moonbeams that filtered through the barred windows in the hallway. It seemed the perfect atmosphere in which to spot a spectral figure gliding down the hall, and I did my best not to think of any of the creepy ghost stories I'd heard about the building earlier in the evening.

Just as I was teetering on the edge of sleep, a metallic drip-dripping noise began in the hallway, seemingly right outside my cell.

It's just the heating, I told myself. This building is 150 years old; old buildings make creepy noises at night.

But when the noise didn't stop and I couldn't stop thinking about a ghostly figure sitting at the bottom of my bed, I gave in and turned the light back on.

I would spend my night in prison not unlike many before me — scared out of my mind.

For the record, I wasn't really in prison. And, for the record, I was not visited by any ghosts or goblins during my stay (at least, I don't think so!).

I was in an old jail, though — the Carleton County Gaol in Ottawa, Ontario, which is now the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

A Bit of Jail Hostel History

The prison first opened in 1862 as Ottawa's main detention center for everyone from drunkards to murderers. When it opened, it was a model prison; the prison many other prisons would be built to emulate. It went on to serve as the area's main jail for more than 100 years.

But when it was finally shut down in 1972, it was because of the jail's inhumane conditions.

After the prison was shuttered, it briefly faced an uncertain future, until Hosteling International purchased the building and converted it into the Ottawa Jail Hostel.

For the first few years the hostel was in operation, guests paid to sleep in actual, unaltered jail cells — cells that were roughly 9×3-feet; just big enough to fit a narrow bed behind a barred door.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

Eventually, though, the first 7 floors of the jail were renovated into more hospitable hostel conditions. Today, guests can choose from a variety of shared and private jail cells, as well as more traditional hostel dorm rooms — all of which come complete with free wi-fi and a free continental breakfast in the morning.

But, despite the renovations, the Ottawa Jail Hostel is still far from your average backpacker's hostel.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

The Jail Hostel Experience

I can't say I've ever experienced a hostel quite like this before.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the Ottawa Jail Hostel were the heavy, wooden doors. These are the real deal, left from when the building was an operating prison.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

Yes, the hostel has been brought into the 21st century with free wifi, keypad entry for security, and a bar in the basement, but much of its past remains front and center. The “rooms,” while clearly larger than the original jail cells, are still contained behind iron-barred doors. The stairs still have “suicide bars” on them, which would have prevented prisoners from jumping to their deaths (or pushing guards to their deaths) in the stairwells. And there are still bars on all the windows.

When you sleep here, you really do feel like you're in prison.

Ottawa Jail Hostel
My private double cell.

This is not a hostel you stay in because you want a comfortable, cozy place to rest your head at the end of the day. Yes, the showers are clean, the blankets are warm, and the mattresses are thicker than some I've slept on. But you don't stay here for all that. You stay here for the experience.

And believe me, staying at the Ottawa Jail Hostel certainly is an experience.

A Dark, Ghostly Past

I'm not a huge fan of ghost stories. Whether I believe in ghosts or not, the stories tend to freak me out. But I knew I could not stay in a place that has made it onto various “most haunted buildings” lists (including Lonely Planet's “Top 10 spookiest buildings around the world“) and not get to know it's past — no matter how ghastly.

So on my first night at the Jail Hostel, I signed up for the nightly “Crime and Punishment” tour. Run in conjunction with The Haunted Walk, this tour takes you to some of the un-renovated parts of the former prison and gives you an idea of what it was like to be a prisoner here 100 years ago.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

The tour takes you first to solitary confinement in the basement (where prisoners were often chained down naked, belly-first) and then heads up to the 8th floor — the floor with the most dark history in the building. The 8th floor, largely un-renovated and left to look as it did when the prison closed in 1972, is home to dark cells and a few prison relics, as well as Death Row and the gallows, which are still fully operational.

The 8th floor tour began in just a regular jail hallway, where our guide Fraser explained what jail life would have been like in the early years at the Carleton County Gaol. For the first few years the prison was in operation, there was no glass on the barred windows, and the prisoners slept without beds.

I shivered as I imagined facing an Ottawa winter in a narrow stone cell with nothing between me and the elements but a thin wool blanket. It's no wonder an undocumented number of prisoners died here.

Ottawa Jail Hostel
No one knows how the bar on this cell was bent…

Fraser also explained why the Carleton County Gaol was such a model prison when it opened. Part of the reason was because of the design of the cells — they have what are called drum ceilings, or arched ceilings that give the halls fantastic acoustics. As a guard, you could sit at the end of the hall, and hear even the softest whisper from the cell furthest away from you.

An Austrian guy named Michael and I tried this out, with him going in an old cell and whispering something as I stood at the other end of the hall.

I could hear him as clearly as if he were standing next to me.

(This of course means that this would NOT be a quiet hostel to stay in if it were full. “Quiet time” begins at 11 p.m. in the cells each night for this reason.)

Ottawa Jail Hostel
See how far away he is?

After heading to the other side of the 8th floor and getting a glimpse into the cells that would have been shared by 3 or more people, we headed to the most sinister part of the building: Death Row.

Canada no longer observes the death penalty, but it did up until 1976. Three men were put to death at the Carleton County Gaol — two of whom may have actually been innocent.

The most famous prisoner to die at the Ottawa gallows was a man by the name of Patrick Whelan. Whelan was accused of assassinating Thomas D'Arcy McGee in the 1860s, and it was public opinion more than anything that convicted him. The evidence against Whelan was weak, but because McGee was considered one of the fathers of Confederation in Canada and was a friend of the prime minister at the time, weak evidence was enough for a conviction.

Whelan maintained his innocence until he was hung in 1869 in what would be Canada's last public execution. More than 5,000 people came in the middle of a snowstorm to watch Whelan die, and a miscalculation on the part of the hangman meant that, instead of a quick death, Whelan took up to 7 minutes to expire at the end of his rope.

He was then denied his last wishes of having his body buried in his family grave in Montreal, and instead was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison's courtyard. No Catholic priest would come to conduct a funeral for him at the prison, and it is said that Whelan's restless soul still haunts the jail.

Ottawa Jail Hostel
I hoped he wasn't haunting my cell…

I learned more about Whelan and the other spirits who are said to haunt the Ottawa Jail Hostel the next evening, when I took Haunted Walks' “Ghost and Gallows” tour of the building. I always maintain that any guided tour either succeeds or fails depending on the guide, and this was a perfect example of that.

While the ghost stories shared on the tour were indeed spooky (plenty of people, for example, have claimed to have seen Whelan's ghost perched at the ends of their beds in the middle of the night), the script for the tour was clearly rehearsed and memorized, and fell a bit flat. I found the guide on the “Crime and Punishment” tour the night before to be much more engaging, and the facts shared on that tour to be much more interesting.

For example, are you at all curious about what offenses could have gotten you thrown into jail in Ottawa in the late 1800s? Offenses included:

Ottawa Jail Hostel
Are any of these surprising to you?

While other versions of the ghost tour might be great, my experience wasn't. It didn't help that the guides for these tours wear cloaks and carry around lanterns… I think it would be hard to take some of their stories seriously to begin with. If you're going to take any of the tours at the Ottawa Jail Hostel, I would recommend the “Crime and Punishment” tour over the “Ghost and Gallows” tour.

Want to Stay?

If you want to brave a night or two with the spirits at the Ottawa Jail Hostel, I highly recommend it. It's affordable, and within walking distance to all the major spots in downtown Ottawa, including the Byward Market area and Parliament Hill. And, if nothing else, it'll certainly be a great story to tell later.

Click here to book at the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

Would you dare to stay at the Ottawa Jail Hostel?


*Note: My stay at the Ottawa Jail Hostel was complimentary, as were my Haunted Walks tours. As always, however, all opinions are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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120 Comments on “My Night in Prison

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  1. Love the research and details you’ve included on this…always wanted to check this place out! Did you experience any ghostly presences?!

      The building has so much history, I didn’t think it would be fair to write this post and not include all those details!

      And no, I didn’t meet any ghosts during my stay… but I certainly WAS freaked out my second night there! They turned ALL the lights out that night (the night before they’d left the lights in the hallways on), and I barely slept at all. Lol. Old buildings make so many creepy sounds…

    Hey Amanda, I simply loved your write up about your stay here. You certainly paint a great picture about your experiences and what you’ve learned. Well done!

      Thanks so much Veronica! Glad you liked it, even though it’s a bit long!

    I’ve done the night tour at Alcatraz and was freaked out of my mind…the whole time I was paranoid that the last ferry would leave without me and I’d end up stranded overnight, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to sleep overnight in an actual jail. Definitely something to try once, though…

      I’m a big baby when it comes to scary/creepy things, but I knew I couldn’t go to Ottawa and not spend a night or two here! The things I do for this blog…. 😉 Haha. I don’t regret it though! It definitely makes for a good story.

    VERY cool that you stayed there. I’d totally do it, not sure if I would alone though… 🙂

      It wouldn’t have been nearly as creepy if I’d been with someone else. I don’t know that I’d go back my myself!

    Great post. I’d heard about this hostel, but I’ve never stayed there. In theory I think I could do it, but I might be screaming if I heard/saw something strange.

      People were asking me if I hoped I would see/hear/feel anything. And I was a bit torn. I mean, having some sort of paranormal experience sure would have made a great blog post! But I would have been so terrified, I probably would have had to leave. Lol.

        My bro managed the hostel in 1975′
        And no way would he ever stay in a cell, he lived in the wardens old apartment. One night he and his wife heard the clunk clang of what may have been the gallows and a mans voice cried out “he is gone, he is gone” they did not leave the apartment to check it out.

        They were alone in the building, cause it was winter

    Wow, this definitely could have been an episode of Ghost Adventures! It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. I always enjoy reading all of your blog posts!

      I wonder if the Ghost Adventures guys know about this spot? I could totally picture them doing an episode there!

    Wow, love the opening few paragraphs. Sounds terrifying! Maybe a career as a horror novelist beckons 😉

      Thanks, Laurence! I wanted to do something a bit different with this post. 🙂 As far as me becoming a horror novelist… I think I’m far too much of a scaredy cat for that! I’d wind up giving myself nightmares.

    That was one of the first hostels I stayed in on my first RTW trip back in 1994 and it turned out to be my fave hostel of the entire trip. Ah, the memories…

      It certainly is a hostel I will never forget staying in! Did you have any creepy experiences there?

        Haha, nah, I just thought it was a cool place to stay. 🙂

    I dont know why i have the feeling that some of those sounds that you heard on the second night might have been the ghosts….Otherwise, you should have heard them on the first nights since the building was still the same.. something just didnt appear on the first night but on the second when there was no light….spoooky!!!

      I think all the sounds were there on the first night, too — I was just more freaked out the second night because it was so dark, and I had just listened to a bunch of ghost stories! Lol. But who knows! It could have very well been Patrick Whelan making some noise outside my cell…

    haha I’ve always wanted to stay somewhere unusual like this and you’ve definitely reignited the reasons why – looks immense and definitely an experience =)

      An experience indeed! If you’re even in Ottawa, definitely spend a night or two here!

    Great story! I was terrified for you when I read the title and the introduction. What a relief to find out it was just a hostel! 🙂

      Hahaha, I can’t tell you how excited I was to get to write a title like that! Glad to hear it drew you in. 😉

    What a creepy but unique experience! I love all the facts and history included, and I think the weirdest thing on that imprisonment list was ‘altering a note.’ Huh?! I doubt I would have been able to sleep well either. I’ll definitely have to give it a try sometime.

      Definitely creepy, and definitely unique! If you ever get the chance to check it out, I’d highly recommend it.

      I agree that the “altering a note” item was confusing. We couldn’t figure out if it meant altering a bank note (like, money), or altering some sort of letter. Imagine getting throw in prison for forging mom’s signature! Lol.

    OMG! I love this! My husband and I are definitely going. We’ve spent the night actually ghost-hunting at other places, and always wish we could stay in old jails and other places like this.

    So, you’ve clinched it: we’re going to Canada this year.

      Awesome! If you’re into ghosts and ghost hunting, I feel like this would be the perfect place for you guys to visit!! And Ottawa is a very cool city, to boot.

      If you do go, you’ll have to be sure to report back on what you find/experience!

    Candice and I tried to stay here when we were in Ottawa in join but it was all booked up 🙁
    This reminds of a Jail hotel that I stayed in in Lucern, Switzerland. They didn’t have any tours of it though but it was DEFINITELY haunted! I thought I heard my friend in the hallway and I looked out three different times and no one was ever there, finally on the 4th time she was there and it totally creeped me right out! haha

      That jail hotel in Switzerland sounds really creepy!! Too bad you and Candice didn’t get a chance to check out the one in Ottawa when you were there. When I was there, there were only a handful of other people! Which is perhaps why it was so damn creepy…

    I would not have slept one minute! There are a lot of things I would do, but mess with my insomnia on purpose is not one of them!

      I’m actually surprised I managed to stay there for 2 nights. I get so freaked out by the stupidest things (for example, I can’t even watch Ghost Adventures by myself without getting scared). So I’m proud that I managed! (Though, if I’d seen anything, I probably would have been out of there.)

    Hah! How bizarre is that?! I’ve heard of this place but didn’t know much about it until reading this post – learned something new today 😉

    Nice post here, at first I thought you were arrested while travelling and to my surprise you just spent a night in a prison hostel. Funny 🙂

      Haha, gotcha! I figured people would probably click on this link just because of the title alone. 😉

    Amazing recap! I’ve heard of this hostel a while back and always wondered what it was like. Maybe mediums should stay away, though, just in case! 😛

      Thanks! I hadn’t even heard of this place until a few weeks before I went to Ottawa. I’m really glad I checked it out, though!

    I can’t believe those 9×3 cells, and that people were actually stuck in them! And solitary confinement consisted of being chained facedown on the floor! Sheesh, no wonder this place was shut down.

    Fascinating post, Amanda – I would never stay here myself, but I really enjoyed reading about it.

      Thanks, Christy! Taking the tour(s) here was probably one of my favorite things I did in Ottawa. It was all quite fascinating for someone like me who really likes history.

      But yeah… I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a prisoner there!

    This is so interesting. I have always wanted to do a tour at Alcatraz. I can’t imagine if I actually had to sleep there though. Too creepy!

      I, too, would love to tour Alcatraz someday! But, like you, I don’t think I’d wanna spend the night there! I’m sure it’d be much creepier than the Ottawa Jail Hostel…

    I find old jails fascinating, but I don’t think I would get any sleep if I stayed here. It’s kinda creepy. I love how you gave the backstory. I didn’t even have to go on the tour! 🙂

      I can totally understand where you’re coming from — sleeping in a place like this certainly isn’t for everyone!

      Though, if you do ever find yourself in Ottawa, I recommend taking the tour anyway. The guides do a much better job with the backstory than me! 😉

    Yikes! That place looks creepy! It takes some courage to stay such a haunting place. It made for an interesting read!

      Glad you enjoyed the story! If not for this blog, I probably wouldn’t have stayed there… haha.

    I dont normally read hostel reviews, but the Ottawa jail hostel is just so unique! I havn’t stayed there myself but I know people who have. Such an interesting place!

      It’s definitely, hands-down, the most unique hostel I’ve ever stayed in!

    That’s funny because I slept over there last March… I really enjoyed it. This place is so amazing… I do recommand it

      Awesome, I think you’re the first one who’s been there as well! Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    What a fun review! I’d absolutely give this hostel a try.

      Well if you ever find yourself in Ottawa, definitely do it!

    Now that’s a place with some character!

      Yup, this hostel is certainly not lacking character! But that’s what makes it awesome.

    One of the best reads I have had this week thanks for sharing. Slightly creeped out though haha.

      Aw thanks, Cole! I had a lot of fun writing this one, so it’s great to see that so many others are enjoying it, too!

    Single or double cell? Oh boy… Seriously, I don’t think I could stay there. I REALLY don’t like ghost stories or creepy places (I blame it on a tramautic childhood experience seeing a play, which oddly enough led me to a career in the theatre…). Sounds fascinating though! What I do love about hostels is the colorful pasts they’ve had. Have you seen the Suk 11 Hostel in Bangkok? It’s a bunch of buildings put together and they just banged through the walls to create hallways. Really cool place!

      Yeah, this place may not be for you, Aaron! Lol, it was definitely creepy.

      But I agree that one of my favorite things about staying in hostels is learning about their pasts — some of them are so interesting!

    Great posts and photos! Always love seeing my home country featured in travel blogs too. I’d totally stay here …. I love weird places like this. 🙂

      Thanks, Cheryl! Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Canada is often grossly overlooked in travel blogs. So I’m happy to be able to add something!

      And if you like weird places, then you certainly would love this hostel!

    Very cool experience Amanda! I would totally check this out because I have a thing about touring old jails. Definitely going to mark this one down.

      Yes, make note for sure! Even if you don’t stay there, going on the tour would be worth it.

    Great post Amanda! Yes, we would “sleep” at this hotel – you’ve inspired us. I guess “stay” is a better word than “sleep” – too much excitement for much of that! -David & Veronica

      Awesome! When you guys do make it there, you’ll have to be sure to let me know what you think!

    There is no way I would be able to sleep there, but I guess that’s the point ha!

      Haha, yes, that’s definitely part of the allure of this place, I think!

    How cool! I think you’re right though, if I stayed there it would be for the experience and not the sleep… on second thought, I’m kind of an uneasy sleeper as is, so I probably shouldn’t try this out. Glad I could read about it here instead though 🙂

      The experience is definitely worth it, though, if only for the story you’ll get to tell afterwards!

    While I was reading this I was reminded of the old jail from the early 1900s in Dublin. That place made my skin crawl and I wasn’t sleeping there. This sounds like an amazing adventure. Very cool hostel idea!

      Ah, yes, Kilmainham Gaol? I visited there when I was in Dublin a few years ago. Definitely creepy!! That one is much bigger than the Ottawa jail. But I’d wager the one in Ottawa may be just as eerie at night!

    I doubt if I would stay here as I have a slight aversion to hostels. And with this one I get the added fear of dropping the soap. 🙂

      Hahahaha. I see what you did there. 😉

      I, too, have a slight aversion to hostels. But I made an exception for this one, and am glad I did!

    I would love to stay there. I can imagine it is easy to let your mind wander when things go bump in the night though!