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.”

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