Cold, ill-fed, terrified: Ex-detainee recalls Lindsay jail ordeal

Muhammed Sillah, centre, is seen on the day of his release on March 21st, 2014. At right is his wife, Sarah Malette, and at left of Muhammad Robert Heft, a Toronto-based Muslim leader. SUPPLIED PHOTO

The main smell of jail, Muhammed Sillah remembers, is human excrement.

After that, the former detainee says, Lindsay Jail reeks with “personal hygeine smells from jailmates.”

Sillah came to Canada from Gambia, in 2006 to study computer network engineering at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont. “I chose Canada because of her diversity and freedom,” he explains.

As a student, he became a vocal critic of the Gambian government‘s human rights record. After his application was rejected, border officials arrested him as a flight risk after he refused an offer of money to leave the country. He replied that his life would be at risk in Gambia.

Sillah spent the next 297 days in detention, five and a half months in the CBSA’s Toronto Immigration Holding Centre on Rexdale Blvd in Toronto and four and a half months in Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay.

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READ: Iranian refugee’s jail ordeal: 173 days and counting – with no end in sight

He says he was transferred after complaining about conditions in the CBSA facility.

“Persons with a criminal records, a history of violence, who are uncooperative or demonstrate a serious disregard for the rules of the centre, pose a security or safety concern to individuals at the TIHC, or have serious medical concerns are not suitable candidates for detention at the TIHC,” said spokesperson Anna Pape. “In Toronto, the CBSA relies on provincial correctional facilities to detain higher-risk detainees.”

His partner Sarah Maltette whom he met as a student in Hamilton, finally succeeded in getting him a spousal sponsorship, and his freedom, last March.

Sillah, 29,  now works for an auto body shop in Burlington.

But the time he spent jailed without charge remain fresh in his mind.

“Jail is basically living in a bathroom,” he explains. “It’s a constant stink that you live with.”

INVESTIGATION: Canada’s Unwanted

More than 200 immigration detainees are kept in Ontario jails at any one time – many without charge. But despite years of demanding access, the Red Cross still doesn’t have permission to inspect their living quarters.

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Ontario’s Corrections and Community Safety Minister told Global News in October the province was hammering out a deal with the Red Cross; Tuesday, spokesperson Lauren Callighen said that an agreement hadn’t been reached.

There are so many immigrant detainees  – refugee claimants, people accused of overstaying a visa or, in short, anyone accused of wrongdoing who isn’t a Canadian citizen – at Lindsay that they have their own section of the jail.

There, detainees with no criminal background mix with hardened convicts waiting to be deported after serving federal time.

“I’ve shared ranges with people who were there for break and enter, molestation, attempted murder – these individuals are being kept in jails with innocent immigrants,” Sillah said.

“It was all about watching your back, all the time. There were always threats around, and there was always intimidation.”

This creates an automatic hierarchy of sorts that dictates everything from access to food to who uses the only clean shower.

“The food is totally not sufficient. It made the stronger ones prey on the weaker ones,” Sillah said.

“You can be randomly approached by anybody and they will demand whatever they want, and if you don’t, they will set you up for a fight.”

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Sillah’s literacy made him lucky: Writing letters and translating for fellow inmates earned him the privilege of using the cleaner bathroom, he said.

The other, he said, was “without adequate privacy, and there was growing mould. It’s in rough condition.”

The immigrant detainee community’s grown big enough to support its own gangs, Sillah said. Joining can provide protection – as long as you’re never alone.

“The disadvantage is that if you are ever alone, away from your other members, your security is at high risk.”

While in Lindsay, Sillah updated a Facebook page about his case by writing out his posts in longhand and dictating them to Sarah on the phone. His posts described jail conditions and the situation in Gambia.

Nancy McDonald worked as the CBSA liaison officer in Lindsay for eight years. She says she frequently saw immigrant detainees beaten by guards.

“When an inmate ticks you off, and you know you’re going to have 20 guys standing in blue shirts behind you, you become quite – forceful,” she said.

“One day, it was lunchtime and I heard a stern, loud voice, and I went down the hallway to see an officer just beating on an immigration detainee. I don’t know what the situation was. It wasn’t an infrequent thing.”

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Lindsay has an average 64 reported incidents of officers’ use of force against inmates, according to data Global News obtained from the province through access to information. That’s below average for the province.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services wouldn’t comment on specific cases but said the safety and security of inmates and staff is its “top priority.”

“Part of that is ensuring that all inmates, including those on immigration hold, are treated fairly and with respect,” spokesperson Brent Ross said in an email.

“The Ministry takes all allegations of assault and misconduct seriously and in each reported instance the matter is thoroughly investigated and, if warranted, police are involved.”

Spokesperson Andrew Morrison later said that inmates are given three meals a day and a snack, in total coming to about 3,000 calories.

Among the succession of cellmates Sillah had over his 129 days there, he recalls an Afghan man, detained on arrival at Pearson International Airport, who had severe depression.

“He found it very difficult to stay in one place for even ten minutes.”

Chronic understaffing has made lockdowns routine at Ontario prisons.

Locked 23 hours a day in his cell became even more miserable last winter, the harshest in years, Sillah said.  (In January and February, nearby Peterborough recorded 21 overnight lows below -20.)

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“The snow piled up halfway up my cell window. … Just imagine being in a fridge for 23 hours a day. It was really difficult to sleep at all, or concentrate.”

Every month an inmate at Lindsay tries to kill himself, according to documents released by Ontario’s correctional ministry under access-to-information laws, more than at other Ontario jails.

The uncertainty facing jailed immigration detainees is far greater than it is for criminals serving defined sentences, McDonald said.

“They never know when they’re going to be released, so it’s an infinite detention for these people. At least if you’re just a regular inmate, not an immigration detainee, at least you know when you will be released.”

“These guys never know when they’re getting out – never, ever, ever.”

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