Lindsay Jennings still remembers the sound of women screaming, the banging on the jail cell walls and the smells from her time in what she calls “the hole.”
Now a researcher with Tracking (In)Justice and advocate for incarcerated people, Jennings detailed her “zombie-like” experience for jurors at the inquest into the death of Soleiman Faqiri on Tuesday, at times seemingly transported back to her 10 days in segregation in an Ontario jail cell.
“I felt hollow inside,” she recalled. “You internalize that you’re powerless, that you’re a bad person, that you’re not worth anything.
“If you don’t come into jail with a mental health issue, depending on how you spend your time, you’re definitely walking out with one.”
With no sunlight, limited human contact and only the cracks in the brick wall in front of her to stare at, Jennings, by no means religious, says she asked guards for a Bible.
Reading it was the one thing that kept her sane, she recalls.
After a gripping first day where video of the final moments before Faqiri’s death was made public for the first timethe inquest focused Tuesday on the conditions inside Ontario jails.
Jurors heard from Jennings about her lived and professional experience, as well as Howard Sapers, former federal correctional investigator and former Ontario independent advisor on correctional reform. In the coming days, the inquest will also hear from corrections management with Ontario’s Solicitor General as well as other jail staff.
‘Overuse’ of remand: former corrections investigator
On any given day, approximately 80 per cent of people in Ontario jails are not serving sentences for crimes they’ve been found guilty of, but rather are legally innocent and awaiting trial, said Sapers, describing an “overuse of remand” in the province. Remand refers to being placed back in custody pending a further court appearance.
That was the case with Faqiri, who died in 2016 at the Central East Correctional Centre while awaiting a mental health assessment following a violent altercation with guards. Faqiri, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder, was being held at the jail after allegedly stabbing a neighbour. The 30-year-old, who had no prior criminal record, had previously been taken into custody multiple times under the Mental Health Act. He was held in segregation during his 11 days at the jail, dying on the floor of his cell on Dec. 15.
Sapers painted a picture of an overcrowded jail system with a highly transient population, where it isn’t uncommon to see double or triple-bunking in cells originally intended for a single person.
“You may have two or three people sleeping in a cell that was designed for only one and these cells are not spacious to begin with,” he said.
“I’ve seen in Ontario jails, mats on the floor where somebody’s head is at the base of the toilet in their cell because they’re sharing the cell with a couple others.”
Sapers also described Ontario’s correctional service as one that “overuses and/or abuse segregation,” which Jennings and Faqiri both found themselves in.
“There are reasons why segregation might be misused,” said Sapers, referencing staffing, infrastructure and other factors he encountered during his experience with the provincial system.
“You really have to look at the whole system,” he said.
‘We treat animals better,’ says advocate
In Ontario, unlike at the federal level, there is no dedicated oversight body for the correctional system, Sapers said. The provincial ombudsman carries out that role along with investigating public complaints about a host of other government organizations. The ombudsman “carries a lot of suitcases” apart from corrections, Sapers said.
As previously reported by CBC News, Faqiri’s death came amid a systemic investigation by Ontario’s ombudsman into how the province tracks and reviews segregation in light of “serious issues raised in an increasing number of complaints.”
In an email to CBC News, ombudsman spokesperson Linda Williamson confirmed Central East Correctional Centre was “the most complained-about correctional facility in fiscal 2015-2016,” with 647 complaints spanning access to medical care, assault, lockdowns, the facilities themselves and other issues.
Calls for a dedicated provincial oversight body for corrections have grown amid a recent spike in deaths in Ontario jails.
A report from Tracking (In)Justice, a law enforcement and criminal justice transparency project, says a total of 41 people died in the custody of Ontario correctional institutions in 2021, almost double the number in 2020. Deaths have been largely on the rise since 2015, the project says.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General previously told CBC News that officials have been working closely with Ontario’s coroner to review deaths in custody and that the health and safety of inmates is “paramount.”
Jennings also characterized the relationship between guards and inmates as at times an “abusive relationship,” with instances of belittling and instigating, where personal grudges or dislikes of particular inmates might colour their treatment.
“We treat animals better than we treat people inside,” she said, recalling some inmates being humiliated or refused when requesting toilet paper or tampons. Correctional officers, she said, should receive yearly training, particularly on mental health.
Jennings also spoke about the fear that can come with voicing concerns from behind bars. Getting complaints out from inside can put you in a difficult position as an inmate, she said, and could leave a person feeling like a target in an environment where correctional officers have control of inmates.
“There’s a feeling of, if you’re going to speak out, you’re going to get punished,” said Jennings. “It’s a petty dehumanizing system all the way from police, courts, incarceration… even reintegration.”
The inquest is expected to continue until the first week of December.