A photo of Soleiman Faqiri at a vigil in Toronto in 2017. Image: Justice for Soli/Facebook

For over five years, the tragic death of Soleiman Faqiri in a Canadian prison has received widespread attention in press coverage, demonstrations, and teach-ins. The case has posed a challenge to our collective conscience over how we incarcerate people living with mental illness.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist finally determined the causes of Faqiri’s death; the injuries he sustained while six guards restrained him on his stomach, beat him, and deployed pepper spray. The pathologist’s findings triggered a third police investigation after the first two proved fruitless. While these developments are hopeful, there is reason to remain skeptical of a legal system that has failed the Faqiri family for so long.

Faqiri’s case remains on the minds of many as the latest in a centuries-long list of shame from Canadian prisons.

The consistency of cruelty

In 1993, the late Canadian poet, writer, and prison guard, Joel Michael Yates (1938-2019) wrote, “In my opinion there is not one well-managed correctional institution in North America. Not one.”

In the mid 19thcentury, cruel and degrading punishment was routinely applied to prisoners in Canada’s notorious Kingston Penitentiary. As documented in Peter H. Hennessy’s 1999 book, Canada’s Big House: The Dark History of the Kingston Penitentiary, prisoners who transgressed behind the infamous Warden Henry Smith’s bars were subject to coldblooded punishments.   

According to the Brown Commission of 1849 which led to the removal of Warden Smith, children with “disordered” minds were subjected to vicious treatment. On one account, a teenage boy named Beauche was violently flogged for making sounds, screaming, and claiming that there was something under his bed in the middle of the night. He was eventually diagnosed as “insane” and transported to the Lower Canada Lunatic Asylum.

Since the days of Warden Smith’s atrocious rule, countries around the world and international bodies alike have developed standards aimed at protecting those subjected to the inhumanity of prison life.

Despite these developments, the consistency of cruelty persists. As a case in point, consider the appalling steps that led to the preventable death of Faqiri in a Canadian jail.

Jail instead of diversion

On December 4, 2016, a 30-year-old man with no criminal record and diagnosed with schizophrenia was apprehended by police in Ajax, Ontario. The man’s name was Soleiman Faqiri, and he was no stranger to police as he had been taken into custody 10 times under Ontario’s Mental Health Act, but December 4 was considerably different with respect to legal-medical decisions and outcomes. 

According to the Schizophrenia Society of Canada’s 2005 paper, Diversion, Mental Health Courts and Schizophrenia, “Jails are not the place to treat individuals with a mental illness.” Unfortunately, this advice is routinely ignored. But is there an alternative? The answer is a resounding yes and it is called diversion. In the words of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, “Diversion offers the opportunity to treat individuals effectively while meeting overall societal objectives of protection and justice.”

Instead of diversion, Faqiri was apprehended and taken to one of the worst prisons in Ontario: the Central East Correctional Centre. As evidence of Central East’s dysfunction, the Community Advisory Board’s Annual Report of 2015 described mounting concerns linked to lockdowns, staff shortages, ineffective family visiting and support systems, increasing presence of ceramic knives, drugs and gangs, inmate-on-inmate assaults, and a lack of mental health training.

Unfortunately, far too many people with mental illness experience inappropriate interactions with the legal system — an appalling phenomenon aptly described as the criminalization of the mentally ill. In Faqiri’s case, this was the first of many missteps.

Segregation instead of a hospital bed

The next unspeakable step involved placing a vulnerable person like Faqiri into segregation. For years leading up to Faqiri’s experience, the use of segregation was painstakingly scrutinized. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General’s 2017 review, Segregation In Ontario, segregation “is so damaging […] that it has been reported as ‘cruel and unusual treatment’ by the United Nations, and can even amount to torture.”

Two years before the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s review, the Public Services Foundation of Canada released a 2015 report titled Crisis in Correctional Services. The report drew specific attention to the influx of inmates with mental health issues and the link between deficient mental health services and increasingly hazardous living and working conditions for inmates and prison guards. The report unequivocally states “segregation is the worst possible response to the overwhelming majority of inmates with these [mental health] problems.”

As far back as 2012, a report conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) points out that Canada’s 2010 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities created an opportunity to articulate and put into practice all the legal, policy, and regulatory measures that would protect the human rights of persons with disabilities. As mentioned in the report, a vital principle of the UN convention “is to always employ the least intrusive and least restrictive interventions possible.”   

Furthermore, the report states:

“People living with mental health problems and illnesses […] should be able to count on timely access to the full range of options for mental health services, treatments and supports, just as they would expect if they were confronting heart disease or cancer.”

Given Faqiri’s identity as a racialized person, Muslim and immigrant from Kabul, Afghanistan, the commission’s report is particularly insightful when it states: “People who are immigrants, refugees, members of ethno-cultural groups or who are likely to be racialized […] face particular challenges that put their mental health at greater risk.”

Beating and death instead of care and treatment

On December 15, Faqiri was taking a shower and refused to return to his cell. In response, the guards attempted to physically remove him.

In the process of removing Faqiri from the shower he was struck by one of the guards, pepper sprayed twice directly in the face and eventually shoved back into his cell. It was here where the abuse spiralled even further out of control.

Following a code blue alert, several more guards entered Faqiri’s cell. While some pinned his limbs to the ground, other guards placed a spit hood over his head and pressured his body to the floor with leg irons. On top of these already excessive measures, which went on for an agonizing three hours, Faqiri was handcuffed behind his back in the prone position. In the end, Faqiri was found to be unresponsive and pronounced dead in a cold bloody cell far away from those who cared for him.

According to a 2017 coroner’s report, Faqiri’s body had over 50 cuts and bruises and showed many other clear signs of blunt impact trauma. Why was a person with a serious mental illness beaten to such a degree by the very people responsible for his well-being and safety?

Faqiri was the victim of a legal-medical apparatus that astonishingly concluded the cause of death was “unascertained.” How could this be?

Bureaucratic re-traumatization

To make matters worse, the legal-medical system has made healing for the family an unreachable goal. At every level of analysis, the very systems responsible for so-called justice have failed the family, instead forcing them to relive their pain and suffering.

An initial investigation conducted by the Kawartha Lakes Police Service stated that no charges would be laid against those involved with Faqiri’s death. While this investigation included almost 70 interviews with prison guards, inmates, and medical personnel, a known eyewitness named John Thibeault — located in a cell across Faqiri’s — was never questioned. According to Thibeault’s account, which was shared by the The Fifth Estate, the guards were yelling at Faqiri to “stop resisting” even though there were no signs of life.

After the failure of the Kawartha Lakes Police Service investigation, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) launched a reinvestigation, but the OPP also declared that it was not pressing any charges against those involved in Faqiri’s death.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ (MCSCS) response included a host of blame tactics, suspensions, and dismissals geared towards abolishing the claim of negligence. As opposed to a deeper analysis of institutional deficiencies linked to incident investigations, psychiatric assessments, and staff training in the use of force, negotiators, Institutional Crisis Intervention Teams (ICIT), pepper spray, spit hoods, and escort, MCSCS maintained that their employee training and processes were not flawed.

In 2021, the Faqiri family continues to seek full transparency and accountability in a legal-medical system saturated in bureaucratic re-traumatization in the form of inaccuracies, coverups, waiting games, and blame tactics. Recent findings linked to the causes of Faqiri’s death are a turn in the right direction; however, much more needs to be done to break the cycle of violence and injustice.

The insanity of the system

While one might be tempted to think of Faqiri’s death as an institutional anomaly, the reality suggests that solitary confinement, institutional brutality, and racial profiling are linked to a lengthy list of names: Ashley Smith, Edward Snowshoe, Abdurahman Hassan, Justin St. Amour, Moses Amik Beaver, Matthew Hines, Jordan Sheard, Cleve Geddes, Yousef Hussein, Adam Kenneth Reed, Adam Capay, and Clayton Cromwell. How many more will it take before we transform a broken system euphemistically classified as “corrections?”

According to the Legal Information Institute, negligence refers to “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”

Consider: would a reasonable individual take a person diagnosed with schizophrenia to a jail, let alone a disreputable jail? Would a reasonable individual place a person diagnosed with schizophrenia into segregation? Would a reasonable individual participate in a gang-like beating of a person with a serious mental illness?

As a means of understanding this legal-medical recklessness, it helps to examine a report published three years before Faqiri’s death. In the Ombudsman Ontario report of 2013 titled The Code, Ontario’s watchdog mapped out a system oozing with concealment, silence, denial, and sanitization of undesirable incidents. The report documents the ways some guards use lies, annihilate records, make deals with inmates, and strategically conceal facts as a means of protecting themselves and their co-workers.

The report spells out the fact that the application of excessive force by some guards is not only illegal and inexcusable, but also an enduring aspect of a dysfunctional prison culture that needs to be urgently addressed. The report goes into disturbing detail about cases in which restrained and controlled inmates suffering from mental illness were subjected to head kicks and other harsh attacks.

The writing was on the wall years before Faqiri’s death. Clear steps needed to be taken to prevent the ongoing victimization of people with mental illness. What we have is a negligent system that routinely ignores evidence-based measures.

The capacity to move forward

When I first learned about Faqiri’s case in 2020, my immediate reaction was to contact Soleiman’s brother Yusuf Faqiri to see if there was anything I could do to support his family’s struggle. During our initial conversation, I realized that I was talking to someone who was, on one hand, deeply shattered by the circumstances of his brother’s death, and on the other, filled with a unique love for humanity and an unshakable passion to transform a dehumanizing prison system incapable of protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.

To this day, I remain committed to the Justice for Soli Movement and believe, alongside countless other people and organizations, that people with mental illness deserve much more than jails, flogs, handcuffs, spit hoods, gang-like beatings, and death. It is time to end the consistency of cruelty in Canadian jails.

For more information on getting involved please visit: https://www.justiceforsoli.com/

Jozef Konyari is high school teacher and activist with an M.Ed. in Social Justice Education (SJE) from the University of Toronto Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

Image: Justice for Soli/Facebook