Soleiman Faqiri was murdered. Hands and feet bound, a hood over his face, he was beaten to death in a correctional centre in Ontario. Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 270 people died in Canadian provincial jails. Soleiman was one of them. The chain of events that led to his death began on December 4, 2016, when police intervened in a dispute between Soleiman and his neighbour, arresting Soleiman on charges of assault, aggravated assault, and uttering threats.
This was not Soleiman’s first encounter with police. Since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 19, he had been arrested 10 times under Ontario’s Mental Health Act. Soleiman’s experiences reflect the systemic criminalization of mental illness. According to Statistics Canada, 34% of Canadians with a “mental or substance use disorder” say they have come into contact with police in the previous 12 months – more than twice the rate of the general population.
“Jails are becoming the new hospitals. But people with mental illness should never be in jail in the first place,” insists Yusuf Faqiri, Soleiman’s brother. “My brother needed a bed and a doctor. Instead, he was isolated, cuffed, and beaten to death.” Soleiman was locked in the maximum segregation unit of the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, where six guards participated in his killing. A few days before his death, a judge ordered that Soleiman be transferred to the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health for a mental health assessment. “The only reason he wasn’t there is that he was waiting for a bed,” according to Yusuf. “That’s another tragedy of this story.”
Prisons and jails are designed to cut people off from their families, communities, and support networks. During the 11 days Soleiman was in Provincial custody, his family tried to see him four times; each time, they were turned away. “To this day, we haven’t been given the reason why we weren’t able to see him,” Yusuf says. One thing he knows for certain: cutting Soleiman off from his family, who had been caring for him since his diagnosis, exacerbated his mental health distress. “We kept him alive for 11 years,” Yusuf says. “It took just 11 days for him to die under government care.”
Soleiman’s story reveals the immense power that lies in the hands of prison officials, and the relative powerlessness of inmates and their families. “There’s another layer when you talk about power imbalance,” Yusuf says. “The Coroner’s Office found there were 50 bruises on my brother’s body and a significant number were blunt impact trauma. An eyewitness stated that one of the guards had his knee on my brother’s neck. How do you explain applying force to a man who is mentally ill and ultimately defenseless?”
Soleiman’s story is not exceptional. A report from the Correctional Investigator of Canada reveals 1,914 “use of force incidents” were documented in institutions managed by Corrections Canada between October 2016 and February 2018. Of those incidents, 41% involved at least one inmate with mental health concerns.
Soleiman died on December 15, 2016. “The night we got the news, a part of us was lost,” Yusuf recalls. “Two police officers came to my parents’ house and informed my father of Soleiman’s passing. It was at that moment that our questions began. Frankly, the same questions we have been asking since that day are still unanswered. Why was Soleiman killed under government care?”
“We haven’t had an opportunity for closure. We still grieve and our grief is compounded by the fact that there has been no accountability.” This is what led Yusuf, along with family and friends, to begin the Justice For Soli campaign and cross-Canada tour. “The list of people with mental illness that die under government care is long and arduous. Ashley Smith, Abdurahman Hassan, Justin St. Amour, Cas Geddes, Moses Beaver, Matthew Hines. It just keeps getting longer and longer. Through the Justice For Soli movement, I want to make sure my brother’s story is heard, so that another family doesn’t have to bury their loved one.”
“For us justice is simple,” Yusuf says. “We’re calling for transparency and accountability.” Yusuf and a team of lawyers have spent two years fighting for answers and the Canadian state has resisted every step of the way. “When our lawyers applied for a Freedom of Information request to get the police report, that was initially denied. Only a couple months later when the Information Privacy Commissioner stepped in did we get even partial access to the police report. We are still waiting for more information.”
After a year-long investigation into Soleiman’s death, the Kawartha Lakes Police Service concluded there were no grounds for criminal charges. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that an investigation by police officers found prison guards had no fault, since prisons and police are united as two arms of the carceral state. Regardless of the conclusions of the investigation, Yusuf has continued to press for accountability. “My brother didn’t just fall over and die. When he was taken into custody, he was a healthy man. But he was given to us in a body bag.”
Justice For Soli won a partial victory recently when the Ontario Provincial Police took over Soleiman’s case and launched a new investigation into his death. This shows that justice is never handed to us by those in power. We have to fight for it. “There are many ways to join the fight,” says Yusuf. Justice For Soli is on Facebook and Twitter. They have launched an online petition and a crowdfunding page to cover legal costs. Justice For Soli is also organizing a cross-country speaking tour.
Yusuf Faqiri and others will be speaking in Victoria on February 23, 2:00pm at the Central Library (735 Broughton) and in Vancouver on February 24, 6:30pm at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House (800 E. Broadway).