7

The mental health crisis in Canadian prisons

Soleiman Faqiri, who died after a confrontation with prison guards, is just the latest case of an inmate with mental illness dying inside a Canadian prison


 
A small group of family and friends of Soleiman Faqiri, hold a vigil at Nathan Phillips Square, for the mentally ill man who died during an altercation with guards in jail in Lindsay about 8 weeks ago. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

A small group of family and friends of Soleiman Faqiri, hold a vigil at Nathan Phillips Square, for the mentally ill man who died during an altercation with guards in jail in Lindsay about 8 weeks ago. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

“Something’s wrong here,” Yusuf Faqiri tells me, his voice breaking. “My brother had a mental illness and he was killed while in the care of the Ontario government. After almost three months, we still have no idea what actually happened.”

He’s right. Something is terribly wrong. Inmates with mental illness are dying inside Canada’s prisons.

On Dec. 4, 2016, Soleiman Faqiri—his family called him “Soli”—was sent to the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. He was put in segregation, or, to use the more common term, solitary confinement. Eleven days later, he was dead.

“Two police officers came to our house and told us my brother died after guards entered his cell,” Yusuf recalls. They gave the family no further details. When they eventually saw Faqiri’s body, it was covered in bruises. There was a deep cut on his forehead. It took six agonizing weeks for any more information to emerge. Faqiri was “involved in a physical altercation with multiple correctional officers,” a statement from the Kawartha Lakes Police, who are investigating the death, stated on Jan. 30. “Mr. Faqiri became vital signs absent during this interaction. Lifesaving attempts were made to revive Mr. Faqiri, although were unsuccessful. Mr. Faqiri was pronounced dead inside of a cell.”

You now know as much about Faqiri’s death as his family does. A coroner’s report is expected at the end of March, but until then, the family is in the dark. Who was involved in the altercation? I asked both the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and the union representing the correctional officers and neither will confirm if any guard involved in the death has been suspended, disciplined or even questioned because of the police investigation.

“We understand that Soleiman was restrained and that pepper spray and a hood were used,” says Nader Hasan, the Faqiri family lawyer, referring to a “spit hood,” meant to stop inmates from biting or spitting at guards. Still, even Hasan cannot confirm these basic details. “We have not been permitted to see the investigative brief assembled by the Kawartha Lakes Police Service, so we cannot say this with complete certainty.”

Faqiri’s struggles with mental illness began in 2005. While attending the University of Waterloo for environmental engineering, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Yusuf says that until then, his brother had been an A student who played high school rugby and football. After his diagnosis, he took medication, but Yusuf says he was very much a healthy, functioning individual. Still, even before his Dec. 4 incarceration, when he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, one count of assault and one count of uttering death threats and bodily harm, Faqiri was known to police. He had been charged before, but the family is reluctant to provide details.

Faqiri’s parents tried to visit him at the Lindsay prison three times, and Yusuf and his other brother tried once, but on each occasion they were denied contact. Yusuf said he informed the prison that his brother was mentally ill. According to Hasan, Faqiri was actually scheduled to go for a mental health assessment, but it came too late.
The Ontario ombudsman’s office spokesperson Linda Williamson told me the prison in Lindsay “was the subject of more complaints to our office than any other Ontario correctional facility for the past three years.” There were 647 complaints in 2015-16, up from 532 in 2013-14. In other words, complaints are going up, not down, in one of the largest prisons in Ontario. This is where the singular tragedy of Soleiman Faqiri becomes even more troubling. He’s part of a very grim pattern.

On Feb. 8, a man named Cleve Geddes hanged himself in his cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. He died later in hospital. The Ottawa Citizen reported he suffered from a mental illness. Two other men at the same facility, Yousef Hussein and Justin St-Amour, recently killed themselves by hanging in their cells. On Feb. 13, Moses Amik Beaver, who suffered from mental illness, died at the Thunder Bay jail. There is an inquest into that death.

How widespread is this? The truth is, no one knows because no one has cared enough to get the proper information. Correctional Services in Ontario told me that since 2015, there have been 34 inmate deaths in provincial custody, but there is no breakdown as to how or why those inmates died. Back in May, the Ombudsman tagged this as a problem. “The Ministry had not produced comprehensive statistics on the rate of suicides amongst segregated inmates,” Williamson said. The Ombudsman urged the government to “keep statistics about the use of segregation across facilities” and “instances of self-harm, increased medical treatment, hospitalization and deaths occurring during segregation.” None of these are currently available. Williamson told me the Ombudsman’s office was “aware of at least four” suicides in recent years, but they just don’t have the proper details. On paper, Faqiri is just another singular incident.

In its defence, the Ministry says it has 100 dedicated professionals providing mental health support services to inmates at 23 provincial facilities and is currently training more correctional officers to deal with mental health issues in custody. But Monte Vieselmeyer, of the union representing correctional officers, told me the training is badly inadequate, offering little guidance in how to deal with a mentally ill inmate in crisis. Someone exactly like Faqiri. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done.

Will we ever know what really happened to Faqiri? Even that is in question. It’s worth noting that the former Ombudsman in Ontario, André Marin, studied use of force on inmates back in 2013 and found what he called a “code of silence” amongst correctional officers. Some correctional staff committed what Marin called “brazen acts of violence” against inmates and even tried to “destroy and falsify evidence” or “intimidate colleagues who tried to report the perpetrators.” Vieselmeyer told me Marin’s report was “self-serving” and distorted the evidence on the use of extreme force.

The political infighting continues, but cannot justify the outrageous fact that it has taken months for anybody at the Lindsay jail to be suspended or disciplined in the wake of the death of Soleiman Faqiri.

There is simply no reason why a Canadian family has to wait so long to find out the basic details about the death of their son. There is no reason why a Canadian man had to die in the custody of the state. Soleiman Faqiri fell through a black hole in the system. Many others have as well. His name should not be forgotten.
“My mom is struggling a lot,” Yusuf says. “It’s one thing to lose a son, but another to not know how. We just want justice for my brother.”


 

The mental health crisis in Canadian prisons

  1. It’s time we dealt with mental illness seriously and stopped just throwing people in cages and forgetting about them.

  2. This is murder, plain and simple. When a restrained man, with a hood on, in a solitary cell, is confronted by numerous officers, and dies, the officers are to blame. How can a bunch of trained men not subdue a person without killing him, let alone someone who is mentally ill, not on meds, and not responsible for their actions. An A student in engineering, unfortunately suffering from a horrible illness, was murdered. And, the boys club won’t own up. Prison guards, for the most part, don’t understand that they are custodians of people’s lives. They are there to protect prisoners, not to hurt them, bully them, treat them like trash. Every person in jail has a complicated and different reason for being there. The mentally ill, not treated properly; the poor abused kid, living on the streets, doing drugs to forget, the teen without support who grows up in a gang and considers them brothers, peer pressure, and yes, some deranged sociopaths and plain mean people. Doesn’t give guards the right to kill them without any inquiry. My heart goes out to that poor family. Hopefully a guard will grow a pair, and tell the truth, no matter the cost, to give some peace to an innocent mother who is grieving the loss of her son, again. She loses him to schizophrenia, then to prison, now to an unexplained, mysterious death that no one seems to care about. I care, and I am outraged.

  3. “even before his Dec. 4 incarceration, when he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, one count of assault and one count of uttering death threats and bodily harm, Faqiri was known to police. He had been charged before, but the family is reluctant to provide details”

    Funny how they never had him assessed before his behaviour escalated to the point that it did.
    Seems to me, the family wants to blame someone, so that they can start a lawsuit.
    Shame they didn’t think his behaviour meritied a shrink BEFORE he assaulted people.

    Perhaps the guards were defending themselves against a violent man. And sometimes, crazy people can be very strong.
    Sorry- but before you throw blame around- take a look at what led him to be where he was.

    And maybe if PM Turdeau were doing his job, especially since he grew up with a mentally ill mother- he would be looking at the lack of mental health services, and investing in fixing that, rather than throwing billions away on foreign countries’ social programs. . . we do have our own lack of services here in Canada, and throwing money at Iran or Viet Nam or other third world countries who need to wake up and start holding their people accountable for their overpopulation problems first & foremost- is not going to fix problems here at home.

    • Your comments reveal your ignorance of the realities of the terrible disease of schizophrenia. By definition people with the disease suffer from psychosis which means that they cannot tell the difference from reality and fantasy. They are often plagued by delusions and hallucinations. For most, those are highly destructive. They tell them that the devil is out to kill them. Many are homeless and fearful of others. One psychiatrist described it to me, that it is like being in room with 13 television sets on, all on different channels, all giving one destructive messages. They have very little insight into what is best for them. They are reluctant to trust the medical community and accept treatment. The medications have quite awful side effects. Having said all of that, a family watches a young man or young woman who is one day full of potential turn into a frightened, seclusive and very paranoid person who becomes fearful of everyone around them and is a virtual stranger. Meanwhile society has no compassion because the stigma is so overwhelming and the level of ignorance is staggering. For many with mental illness, cancer would be a preferable diagnosis. It is a shame you cannot walk one day in the shoes of a family member or better yet, a person with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. In Alberta, we have forensic psychiatric facilities where people who have warrants are assessed and treated. We don’t put our mentally ill in jail. It is inappropriate and it leads to this kind of tragedy.

      • The other ridiculous comment you made is that it is a shame his parents didn’t think he merited a shrink before he assaulted someone…how pray tell do you believe he got the diagnosis of schizophrenia if he didn’t see a shrink? What is a shame, is that the prison system didn’t think he merited treatment instead of violence at the hands of their staff when his symptoms were active. There is treatment, in case you didn’t know it….for the acutely ill and it is given by psychiatric nurses via injections and it works on the acutely ill. There is no excuse because we have been down this road before in Canada.

  4. Mr. Solomon should get all the facts before he comments on a serious issue such as a death in prison. He is making assumptions from information received only from the family of Mr. Faqiri. The family and Mr. Solomon are quick to point the finger at the correctional workers. Until the coroners report comes out everything is speculation on their part. I wonder why the family won’t comment on why he was in jail to begin with. I believe that Mr. Faqiri assaulted his family, a neighbour and it was them that had him arrested. I also know that all staff involved has been interviewed by the police just days after the incident. Mr. Solomon you are making a bad situation worse with your untrue comments. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why you were fired from the CBC!

    • With the closing of so many psychiatric hospitals people who should be getting treatment find themselves in jails that are not equipped or properly staffed to deal with these poor souls. Mentally ill patients do not belong in jails. Sadly transparency about the situation in the jails won’t come from the ombudsman’s office; they form a firewall as the apologists for government and seldom if ever act on behalf of individual citizens.

Sign in to comment.