Some love stories come to grief. This is a grief story that comes to love.
It begins three years ago, Dec. 15, 2016, with a knock at the door of the Faqiri family residence in Ajax, Ont. The door opened. A police officer stepped forward. Their son and brother, Soleiman Faqiri, was dead, the officer said. He had died in a cell at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. The officer couldn’t say anything more.
The family had been racked with worry over Soleiman’s placement in prison. Eleven days earlier, amid a major mental-health breakdown, he’d been charged with aggravated assault for stabbing a neighbour. The news stunned them.
“We didn’t sleep or eat for days,” says Soleiman’s older brother, Yusuf. “Darkness enveloped my family. We wanted answers."
In many respects, the wait continues. Over the weeks and years to come, the Faqiris came to the same realization as hundreds of grieving families before them: Prison authorities prefer opacity over transparency when it comes to the people who die in their care. Only with the help of lawyers and access to information requests has Yusuf managed to make any sense of his brother’s passing.
Shocked by the lengths his own grieving family had to go to wring information from the provincial prison service, Mr. Faqiri is now devoting himself to helping other families navigate the byzantine process.
It’s the only way the shroud of darkness will lift, he says.
Every year, about 100 Canadian prisoners die in custody. A 2016 report by the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator said that federal prison authorities routinely withhold information from grieving families. What they are forced to release through access to information requests is often heavily redacted to hide any mention of errors or negligence on the part of prison staff.
Compelled by grief, Mr. Faqiri began a search that has yielded some answers in the form of a damning coroner’s report, police files and fired correctional officers. He also travelled to university campuses and conferences to give workshops and seminars on his brother’s death. It’s become his calling.
“It’s the best way I’ve found to honour my late brother,” he says. “I’ll never stop.”
Early next year, Mr. Faqiri will launch an advocacy organization for families of mentally ill prisoners who have died in prison. “People shouldn’t have to go through what we went through,” he said. “The system is simply too overwhelming to navigate."
He has enlisted support from several families who’ve been pushing for prison transparency for years. “I hear horror stories on an almost daily basis of families being stonewalled,” said Dawna Ward, sister of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen whose death in a solitary confinement cell in 2007 in a Kitchener, Ont., prison for women sparked widespread calls for prison reform.
Ms. Ward has been talking with Mr. Faqiri about forming a coalition for a year and a half. She already runs a small support group called Families Impacted by Deaths in Custody, but she’s been so impressed with Mr. Faqiri’s tirelessness that she’s decided to join forces with him. “I honestly don’t know where he gets the energy,” she said of Mr. Faqiri. “I often ask him if there are two or three of him. He’s managed to get out there and gather people and gather support single-handedly with almost no guidance. He’s just followed his heart.”
Mr. Faqiri’s brother had been a straight-A University of Waterloo student and aspiring engineer when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2005, derailing his academic career. He was fine under medication. But by March, 2016, he was refusing medication and violent outbursts followed. For eight months, Yusuf had talked to caregivers and police about having his brother institutionalized, to no avail.
Shortly after the arrest, Yusuf appeared at one of his brother’s hearings to plead for his transfer to a psychiatric facility. “He needs the help of an institution, not, with all due respect, a correctional facility,” Yusuf told a courtroom on Dec. 12, 2016. A justice of the peace agreed, but couldn’t secure an assessment until the following week, by which time Soleiman was already dead.
Since then, a coroner’s report has been released showing that Soleiman died after a confrontation with guards and that he had 50 bruises on his body.
A subsequent Kawartha Lakes Police Services investigation determined that no criminal charges were warranted. The Ontario Provincial Police has since reopened the case, but refuses to say where the investigation stands.
Three correctional officers were fired, but one has since been reinstated.
The family have filed a $14.3-million excessive force claim against the province and several correctional officers. Two dismissed officers responded with a counterclaim against the province calling the death accidental and blaming any possible negligence on training and staffing problems at the jail.
In a statement of defence, the Government of Ontario denies that it “breached any duty of care that it owed to Mr. Faqiri.”
If ever the whole quest for justice becomes tiresome, Yusuf dwells on a single memory of his brother. They were both outside on a frigid day in late November, shortly before Soleiman’s death. Yusuf was headed to a bus bound for work, but couldn’t find his winter hat despite a frantic search.
“I’ll just never forget how my brother calmly took the hat off his own head, put it on mine, gave me a kiss on the forehead and sent me on my way,” Yusuf says. “I love my little brother. That’s what keeps me going.”
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