Prison, Mental Health and Racism

Philosopher Michel Foucault once asked the following rhetorical question: “What is so astonishing about the fact that our prisons resemble our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals — all of which in turn resemble prisons?”

People may agree or disagree with this interjection.

I would like to bring forward the cases of two young men, one Muslim and the other Indigenous. Both individuals struggled with mental health issues and yet both were treated by coercive and punitive institutions rather than hospitals. That led to the tragic death of the former and to the indefinite detention of the latter.

In both cases, one can strongly argue that prisons and hospitals became interchangeable with disastrous effects on the lives of these individuals.

The fact that both individuals are racialized, one a visible Muslim man and the other a Dene man from northern Saskatchewan, adds another layer to the already existent oppression found in the carceral system.

The story of Soleiman Faqiri has been in the Canadian media since his death on December 15, 2016.

Faqiri was arrested 11 days prior to his death for attacking a neighbour with an “edged weapon.” Since he was a person with a documented mental health history, he should have been taken to a doctor as it is stipulated under Ontario’s Mental Health Act. But not on that day when he was arrested. Instead he was taken to a prison: the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. Even worse, he was incarcerated in solitary confinement.

Why was he put in jail instead of being taking to a hospital? Why was he put in solitary confinement when it was known that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia? Wasn’t Foucault then right in this case? Prisons are equal to hospitals? Maybe the officers who decided to put him in jail thought a jail is like a hospital, with the only tragic difference being that the jail killed Soleiman Faqiri instead of saving his life.

Beside the mental health issues that Faqiri suffered from, he was a visible, racialized Muslim man. How much did his beard, the kufi on his head and his long cultural dress play a morbid role in his treatment by jail guards? We don’t know.

Ryan Williams, a religious studies academic at Cambridge University’s prison research centre, has examined the role of Islam in three U.K. maximum security prisons. He writes that there is a muddling of “issues around extremism, religious identity, and the specific conditions that bring about certain interpretations and enactments of Islam. Within prisons, everyday Muslim practices of praying, reading the Qur’an, or even reading commentary from Muslim scholars about God’s creation and evolutionary theory can raise concerns over extremism.”

Why would guards at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay be different from those in the U.K.? Why would they be immune to an international Islamophobic climate, where people mix their own prejudices and fear of Islam with their attitude towards the aggressiveness or resistance shown by some Muslim inmates?

Some would consider this last question a serious accusation against public servants who are supposed to be objective in conducting their duties. But unless this hypothetical assertion is thoroughly taken into consideration in any investigation of the case, the public and Faqiri’s family may never know why he died while resisting the incredible amount of physical force exerted by the 20 to 30 officers who were called to subdue him.

Despite the sad ending to Faqiri’s case and the pain his horrifying death brought to his family, we shouldn’t look at it as an isolated case. It should be seen through the lens of the ongoing racism and colonialism still affecting many Canadian institutions. The carceral system in Canada, at both federal and provincial levels, has been filled with disturbing, tragic cases of Indigenous prisoners with mental health conditions requiring urgent care but for whom the long incarceration, segregation and neglect instead led to self-inflicted injuries or suicide.

Joey Toutsaint, a Dene inmate from northern Saskatchewan with serious mental illness who, by his own count, has spent more than 2,180 days in isolation, is the “perfect” example to describe this travesty of justice. His Indigenous background has a lot to do with the harsh treatment the prison system has reserved for him since he entered it for criminal offences.

Some perhaps well-meaning voices have been asking for more Indigenous representation within the prison system, such as the appointment of a deputy commissioner for federally sentenced Indigenous offenders.

A similar call was made in the aftermath of 9/11 when a wave of Islamophobia swept up many Muslim men and wrongly charged them with terrorism. At the time some of these voices recommended that the RCMP and other police bodies go through culturally sensitive training in Islam and Muslims customs.

In my opinion, this cultural sensitivity training or “Indigenization” of the prison system are merely cosmetic changes. They “help” the institutions that conduct them look good more than they help the affected individuals. The core problem remains — that those law enforcement institutions and prisons are based on old, persistent and racist views towards racialized groups, mainly the Indigenous population. The “offender” is generally represented as a racialized person who is lazy, dirty, oppressed and violent, regardless of their socioeconomic background and most importantly, regardless of their mental health situation. Only a restructuring through decolonization can help in stopping this epidemic of high incarceration and the subsequent killing of Indigenous populations and other racialized minorities suffering from mental health issues.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

One thought on “Prison, Mental Health and Racism

  1. Thanks for writing about this topic. In the US, which is where I’m from, a lot of people who under other circumstances really should be taken care of by a health system are also instead thrown into jail.

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