I’ve often thought of the superjail in Lindsay, Ont. as one of the most miserable places in Canada. The hell space that is the Central East Correctional Centre, a medium and maximum security provincial jail, is by many accounts a place of degradation and cruelty, of humiliation and torture and death. Since jail is designed to be miserable, we might say the Lindsay superjail is one of the most effective jails in the country. It churns out punishment and suffering efficiently, and keeps most of its publicly-funded crimes against humanity out of sight.
In the rare moments we are forced to see the horrors of our jails, we find it harder to pretend their purpose is safety or self-reflection or rehabilitation. Soleiman Faqiri died while imprisoned inside the Lindsay superjail over two years ago after being attacked and beaten by numerous guards. To date, no one has been charged in Faqiri’s death. However, the recent reopening of a criminal investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police, and a lawsuit by his family, have turned the public spotlight back on.
During the two years since Faqiri’s death, public officials inside and outside the jail have, unsurprisingly, said next to nothing. While jail staff, police, and government officials regularly say they cannot discuss Faqiri’s specific case, they face an existential problem with every new revelation about the Lindsay superjail. While most of the public supports jail, almost none of us want to know what actually happens there. Since jail thrives on exactly the kind of violence we claim to abhor, its day-to-day realities aren’t fit for public consumption. It’s easier to justify the violence that is jail when we don’t actually have to deal with it.
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From a deterrence perspective, jail is supposed to be a disgusting and scary place. We pay a ridiculous sum in taxes to keep people in jail as far away from us as possible—$78,4755 per inmate in Ontario in 2015/16, according to this report. This money is not for the welfare of prisoners; it is for a system of punishment meant to discipline prisoners and instill fear, and everyone knows it. The less we have to see or think about this terror system, the more easily Canadians can manage the costs, in taxes and in human suffering. When the violence of jail is accidentally laid bare, as it was with Faqiri, jail loses its legitimacy.
Although he was charged with a violent crime, Faqiri should never have been sent to the Lindsay superjail in December, 2016. He had been living with schizophrenia for several years, and required a level of care and support that our jails are specifically designed to deny prisoners. As revealed in a CBC investigation into Faqiri’s death, fellow prisoners and even many jail staff believed he was too ill for his surroundings. But a doctor refused to transfer Faqiri to a health care facility, and guards ultimately placed him in solitary confinement as his condition deteriorated.
Eyewitness says he was beaten to death
On Dec. 15, 2016 a paramedic was called to the jail, where he found Faqiri dead. The 30-year-old man had over 50 trauma impact wounds all over his body, including his neck. Guards, who later reported that Faqiri was “exhibiting assaultive and resistive behaviour,” had used handcuffs and leg irons to restrain him, and had placed a spit hood over his head. The paramedic also reported seeing three unknown pills on the floor of Faqiri’s cell. When this first responder asked the jail staff what had happened, he says he received several contradictory stories. However, a fellow prisoner in the cell across from Faqiri that night has come forward with his eyewitness account. “They viciously beat him to death,” the witness told CBC investigative reporters.
We are so desperate to punish those in jail that we ignore the long-term harm we are causing them and ourselves. #Faqiri #onpoli
Of course the guards told stories that didn’t add up. Of course the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional services, which has video of the entire incident, has never released it to the public or Faqiri’s family, who have been campaigning tirelessly for answers and accountability. Of course the Kawartha Lakes police service that investigated Faqiri’s death didn’t lay a single charge. What good is a jail that can’t keep its violence under wraps? How do you punish presumed criminals when your crimes are seen to be worse than theirs?
Of course Faqiri, a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan with a mental health diagnosis, was placed in solitary confinement and denied multiple visits from his family in the 11 days he was detained. We should expect such outcomes for vulnerable people in any Canadian jail, but here Lindsay distinguishes itself: the jail is notorious for holding and abusing immigration detainees, many of whom have never been charged with a crime. Its immigration detainees have engaged in multiple hunger strikes in recent years to demand more humane conditions. The Lindsay jail has been cited for its rampant use of solitary confinement, particularly against prisoners living with mental health issues (such practice in Lindsay and elsewhere has led to a $600 million class action lawsuit against the Ontario government).
In some cases, men in detention in Lindsay cannot escape punishment even when inhumane jail conditions finally force them into the health care system. Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan was detained at the Lindsay jail in 2012 and served four months for assault charges. At the end of his sentence, officials cited their wish to deport Hassan, and simply kept him in the jail, where he languished for the next three years. Hassan was accepted to Canada as a refugee from Somalia in 1993, and his family says he never obtained citizenship because of his mental health issues. In June of 2015 Hassan, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and diabetes, became so ill that he was transferred from the Lindsay jail to a local hospital. After hospital staff complained about his behaviour, two police officers restrained Hussan, with one repeatedly pinning down his head with a towel. Hassan died in his hospital room, and provincial investigators cleared the police of any wrongdoing a year later.
The only surprise in stories like those of Hassan and Faqiri is that we occasionally find out about them; fatality is usually a prerequisite for media attention. Indeed, the fact that Ontario refuses to officially document the number of people who die in its jails tells us the violence is intentional. The real shock is not what we do to prisoners, but that we occasionally have to admit what we do. Jail is an inherently abusive place; it contrasts complete accountability for prisoners with an absence of accountability for staff; it is particularly dangerous for people who already experience systemic discrimination in society. This knowledge is supposed to live in the back of our collective psyches, and to particularly remind those of us society fears most that if we step out of line, this awful place is reserved for us.
Calls for reform are ultimately futile
Since jail is supposed to be nasty, calls for reform, while life-saving and necessary in this moment, are ultimately futile. Our white supremacist, ableist, and patriarchal culture fears incarceration that is too kind and accommodating, that attempts to care for people instead of teaching them a lesson. This is where jail comes from, and reformers shame all of us with the idea we can design a humane form of incarceration for thousands of civilians. We can either get rid of jail and replace it with a more humane system, or we can expect the suffering jail produces to continue.
It’s important to remember that jail is not prison, the institution reserved for people convicted of the most serious criminal offences. In Canada, people go to jail either because they’ve been convicted of a crime that carries a sentence of two years or less, or because they are awaiting trial or immigration proceedings, and have thus not been convicted of anything. Places like the Lindsay superjail often house people accused or convicted of relatively minor crimes, people who are meant to be released relatively soon into the public. Still, we are desperate to punish these prisoners, so desperate that we ignore the long-term harm we are causing them and ourselves.
The high walls, barbed wire, and paramilitary feel of the Lindsay superjail are as much for the public as for the prisoners. Just as prisoners must be kept in, we must be kept out. The seclusion of jail means jail officials can do anything to the prisoners—it’s the perfect site of pure deterrence, the ideal stage for abuse, torture, and ultimately death. Few of us really want to see or know what goes on inside a jail, which is why it can never be a safe, just, rehabilitative, or restorative place.