Eighty-eight immigration detainees held as inmates at the maximum-security Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. have signed a petition urging a coroner’s inquest into the mysterious death of a prisoner in June.
Starting on June 21, detainees at the Lindsay jail started to circulate a petition to Ontario’s chief coroner calling for an inquest into the death of Abdurahman Hassan, a Somali-Canadian detainee, ten days before. It seemed like the only tool to shed light on what happened to him, activists who work with them explain.
They were careful not to let the guards notice.
Activists who published the petition said that it was shared between four ranges that are “effectively cut off from each other” by inmates who do work in the jail, and was eventually smuggled out.
“The cleaners and the servers had a huge role to play in passing the petition around, because oftentimes, especially in the summer, all the detainees are on lockdown because a lot of the guards take time off,” explains immigration detention activist Mina Ramos.
“They pretended they were sending a legal document to a paralegal we have connections with, and very luckily it got through.”
Detainees’ names are censored in the public copy of the petition because they were uneasy about the reaction in countries they may be deported to, Ramos explains:
“Some of these individuals are coming from countries where they were already in danger. We have people who visit our Web site internationally. We don’t know who’s looking, and some of these individuals don’t want people back home, in case they get deported, knowing who they are and what they are doing.”
Immigration detention activist Tings Chak dropped the petition off at Ontario correctional minister Yasir Naqvi’s office in Toronto Monday.
“With the CBSA, an agency that has zero oversight, a coroner’s inquest is one of the only accountability measures that might be available,” she said.
Hassan had an overwhelming list of problems.
Almost nothing has been made public about the 39-year-old Somali-Canadian immigration detainee’s death in a Peterborough, Ont. hospital on June 11, but transcripts of Hassan’s detention hearings offer a glimpse into a life in shreds.
Hassan was bipolar, and several of his lawyers doubted whether he understood what they were trying to explain, or whether he was competent to make decisions. He had a history of suicide attempts, which at one point involved eating feces. He also had insulin-dependent diabetes and asthma.
He also had a long and serious criminal record.
His crimes, in due course, had led to a deportation order, and in the meantime meant that immigration detention hearings refused to release him. His mental illness, on the other hand, made him impossible to deport.
So he sat in the Lindsay jail for three years with no real way out, undeportable, unreleasable – and, lawyer Ben Liston told a detention hearing in May, getting steadily sicker.
“Mr. Hassan … only has sporadic access to psychiatric professionals, no access to therapy or programming or mental health services, and where his condition has noticeably deteriorated over the past years and months.”
Liston pressed unsuccessfully for Hassan to be sent to a jail in Brockville, Ont. that is also a psychiatric hospital. He would not comment for the record for this story.
Ontario’s correctional ministry wouldn’t say why Hassan wasn’t removed from the jail for mental health care.
“We cannot speak to the specifics of this or any case, and are not in a position to release personal information of this nature for any current or former inmate,” spokesperson Brent Ross said. “In general, the Ministry works very hard to ensure that inmates that require medical assistance receive the care and treatment that they need, as they would in the community.”
At a March immigration detention hearing that in theory offered him a chance at freedom, he ranted strangely about birds.
At the hearing, Hassan referred to himself as “a person with mental issues that is struggling.”
Immigration officials asked whether he understood basic facts about the hearing, and the answers were not reassuring.
Fellow inmates remember Hassan as someone who was profoundly unable to cope in jail. They describe a person who was not able to walk normally, bore facial scars from attacks from other inmates, was in and out of solitary confinement – which made his mental illness worse – and suffered from untreated sleep apnea which at one point forced a cellmate to wake him up to 20 times a night.
Suddenly, on June 11 – the third anniversary of his detention – Hassan was dead. The little that is publicly known about his death is summarized in a terse press release from Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit – that an unnamed 39-year-old man had died in hospital in Peterborough after being restrained by OPP and Peterborough city police officers.
The SIU’s investigation is ongoing, spokesperson Monica Hudon said in an e-mail.
The CBSA’s own release about Hassasn’s death contained almost no information.
Little is known about deaths in immigration detention, compared, for example, to the federal prison system, which will release a name and a few details when an inmate dies.
The CBSA only recently started making any kind of public statement when a detainee died. Last fall, Global News reporter Leslie Young had to scour records and file a series of access-to-information requests to compile what is apparently a fairly complete list of detainees who have died in custody.
Young’s research shows a CBSA detainee death where nothing is publicly known other than that it happened at some point after December of 2003:
Earlier this month, Ontario’s correctional ministry denied an access-to-information request filed by Global News asking for documents connected to Hassan’s death, citing 13 different statutory grounds. These included a clause barring records from release if they “relate to labour relations or the employment of a person by an institution.”
Hassan’s long stretches in solitary confinement were bad for his mental health, remembers Muhammad Aqeeq Ansari, a Pakistani immigration detainee in Lindsay.
“You could see cut marks on his cheeks – those are marks from when you get into fights in prison. People make shanks out of different things, lunch boxes, make them into knives and cut each other to leave a mark that ‘This is what I did to you.’”
“It seemed like he was somebody who couldn’t make sense of what was going on around him,” Ansari said.
“The last time I saw him, he was in the yard for a few minutes, and he just told me to pray for him. You could just see him raising his hands, and saying ‘Pray for me’ – that’s it. That was a couple of months ago.”