Why Must a Syrian Refugee in Canadian Prison Refuse Food for 23 Days Simply to Win Some Heat in his Cold Solitary Confinement Cell?
TORONTO, OCTOBER 21, 2003 -- It was a weak and haggard-looking Hassan Almrei who was brought into court this morning on the 23rd day of his hunger strike for heat, shoes, and a sweater in his solitary confinement cell at Metro West Detention Centre. Almrei, who has lost almost 30 pounds since his strike began, is already over 100 pounds below his normal weight.
Almrei smiled at the rows of supporters who greeted him with a collective, "Good morning Hassan," a salutation which was returned with a stern "No talking with the prisoner!" from the court officer.
It was the second day of a hearing into Almrei's demand that the United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners be upheld in his cold concrete cell. It has come to this in 21st century Canada: a 29-year-old refugee must starve himself to draw attention to the conditions in solitary confinement where he has spent the past two years.
In short, Hassan refuses to freeze through another winter in solitary, where he is held without charge or bail on secret "evidence" neither he nor his lawyer is allowed to see.
His Tuesday hearing could have been much further along, since it was scheduled for yesterday as well, but someone in the Ministry of Public Safety and Security (sic) "neglected" to make the arrangements to have Hassan transported from the jail on Monday. This is ironic, given that the habeas corpus hearing (literally "produce the body") was precisely to bring him forward to testify about the conditions he faces.
Ironic, but not surprising. From the beginning of Hassan's hunger strike, the ministry has lied, deflected the issue, and refused to come to a compromise solution that guarantees even the slightest level of comfort in solitary confinement, a place Hassan has been forced to call home through no fault of his own. He was in solitary the first 15 months of his indefinite incarceration without any reason provided other than "security." After a hunger strike and court appearance to get him out of solitary, Hassan was placed in the general population with the unearned and undeserved prison reputation as a man who must be some kind of threat because of that long stretch of solitary.. Anyone who knows the amiable, friendly Almrei would be surprised that he could be seen in any way as threatening, but his life was immediately threatened and he was forced back into solitary.
Since many of us got to know Hassan this past summer, he has spoken at length about the difficulties he faces in solitary, the worst of which is the winter cold, when temperatures plunge to 10 degrees Celsius, inviting hypothermia. He vowed that he would not freeze through another winter, and launched his hunger strike September 29.
On Day 16 of the hunger strike, members of his adopted Canadian family and other supporters attempted to present a space heater to the ministry, pledging to pay for the heating bills if necessary. They were met by a line of police who told them that although the ministry of public safety is a government building, it is not a public building!
It was another piece of Orwellian illogic that has been part of Almrei's life these past two years, held without being told why and threatened with deportation to Syria, where his life would be in grave danger.
On Sunday, some 80 people gathered at Metro West to show support for Almrei and the other secret trial prisoners. They marched to the local RCMP detachment and attempted to present a personalized copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on the basis that the way CSIS and the Mounties treat Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and other targetted communities in Canada, it's as if they have lost their own copy of the Charter.
True to form, the Mounties refused to accept a copy of the Charter. Perhaps they prefer to continue trampling on people's rights, as issues such as the right to know what you are alleged to have done, the right to freely speak your mind or practice your faith, are inconveniences which need not be respected in the relentless war against democracy being waged by Canada's spy agencies.
As we pile into court Monday morning, we are surprised at the blunt comments from Superior Court Justice Arthur Gans who, when government lawyer Angela Jeffrey attempts to introduce the history of the Almrei case, declares, "I don't need any history. You'd have to be in Nepal not to know the history from the popular press," a reference to the extensive coverage Hassan's action has drawn.
Gans, a straight-talking, no-nonsense fellow, in reference to our efforts at the RCMP, even offered the government lawyer his own copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He also acknowledged the large support community in the court by stating he imagined, as another case was about to come up, that we were not there for the cocaine trial. After a brief break, it was determined we could not proceed without Almrei in court., Gans remarked, "Isn't this issue easily determined? Sneakers with velcro might work--I can't imagine that they would be life threatening."
His voice drips with an almost bitter irony at the idiosyncracies and bureaucratic failures of the judicial system. By the end of the day, his face --he could pass for Murray Hamilton, the actor who portrayed Mr. Robinson in The Graduate -- must be tired from his expressions of jaw-dropping disbelief and his incessant rolling of eyes when he is displeased upon hearing the bureaucracy-speak uttered by witnesses and government attorneys.
Tuesday morning's hearing gets off to a sharp start, as Gans directs some pointed comments to Government lawyer Angela Jeffrey. Like all of us in the gallery -- who are unsure how the government can justify wasting thousands of dollars of court time to deny Hassan his three basic demands -- Gans is in no mood for legal game-playing. "All [Hassan] wants is a pair of sneakers. I want to hear why he can't have sneakers. I don't see why this guy can't have them. That is the sole issue before the court."
Jeffrey consults with her fellow lawyer Donald McIntosh, a veteran federal government lawyer who has prosecuted numerous security certificate cases with such a dangerous lack of empathy that it is unclear if he has misplaced not only his own copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but his heart as well. McIntosh says he will not be speaking to the matter, as it falls under provincial, not federal jurisdiction, yet he remains in the court throughout, as if to ensure that Hassan's ill-treatment should continue unabated.
The government calls as its witness Frank Geswaldo, the soft-spoken head of security at Metro West. Geswaldo is hardly in an enviable position, and it shows. Geswaldo is not someone who makes or changes policy, but rather someone who follows directives from the ministry. As he admits under questioning, his hands are essentially tied when it comes to questions of policy changes.
Nonetheless, he is in the hot seat, and says the judge is making him feel uncomfortable as Gans directs a rapid-fire succession of tough questions when he is frustrated with Jeffrey's plodding inquiries.
Geswaldo asks if he could refer to his notes, to which Gans angrily replies, "About WHAT???? This isn't about an event where something happened like when police take notes. Put your notes away."
Geswaldo proceeds to describe the small, concrete solitary cell where Hassan is "housed" as a "special handling offender." This draws the ire of Gans.
"Rather than using euphemisms, tell me what these words mean," Gans says.
Geswaldo replies that Hassan is "an offender who requires special protocol."
Gans bursts in again. "Look, are we talking violent people, mentally unstable, suicidal, what?"
Geswaldo says it means people who have threatened staff, been involved in altercations, or brought contraband into the jail.
Almrei fits none of these categories, however. Indeed, Gans questions Geswaldo, with each question drawing the same answer..
Is he violent?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
Has he ever been involved with contraband?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
Been abusive to staff? Been a security risk in the jail? Misbehaved on the way to the shower? Ever thrown anything at anybody?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
So if Almrei is a nonviolent person, has never threatened anyone, and is trusted enough to allow him out of his cell to sweep up other segregation cells with a broom while wearing running shoes, why is he not allowed shoes in his cell?
The answer is simple: shoes are viewed as a potential weapons. They can either be thrown at staff, or the prisoner can gain better traction to ground themselves, making it difficult for staff to tackle them in a confrontation. Yet shoes such as those Hassan is requesting are worn by inmates in general population, where incidents of violence are just as likely to occur as in segregation.
There is also the issue of alleged "special treatment" were Hassan to get his shoes, which currently sit outside his cell in a box, worn only when he is let out to clean, to go to yard, or to the shower.
If Hassan were allowed to wear his running shoes in his cell, Geswaldo maintains, people throughout the institution and at other jails would be resentful, and "inmates may rebel. The next thing you know we have problems all over the province."
But as Barbara Jackman, Almrei's attorney, points out, after two years in solitary, there have been numerous exceptions for Hassan. He has received a pillow, a towel for religious purposes, and a sheet for his mattress.
"Have there been any riots in the wake of Almrei getting a pillow?" Jackman asks, in light of the comment that exceptions create resentment leading to general rebellion. The answer is no.
Gans blurts out, "So why hasn't there [been a riot] if something like this [granting an exception] is so notorious?"
Geswaldo is caught between a rock and a hard place. There's not a lot he can do other than refer to policies and manuals put out by the ministry.
"Are there any standing orders with respect to special management offenders, special handling protocols--I want to see the manuals. How long will it take?" Gans demands.
It is suggested that Paul Greer, deputy superintendent at the jail, can arrange for that right away and call a deputy minister. "You can do that, can't you Mr. Greer?" Gans asks.
"Yes your Honour," Greer replies from the gallery
"Goodbye Mr. Greer," Gans replies, dismissing him to make that phone call.
The court addresses the issue of the plastic flip-flops that have been offered in lieu of shoes. A pair of these also sit outside Hassan's cell, bought through the prison canteen.
"I'm astonished that he has to buy his own clogs," a clearly annoyed Gans states, his frustration with the bureaucratic idiosyncracies and injustices of the prison system coming to the surface one after the other.
As he explores a plastic bag containing the flip flops, Gans realizes these belong to Hassan, and that to mark them as an exhibit means Hassan would not have access to them. "These are his property. Did you ask permission to take them?" he asks.
"No," Geswaldo says.
"Why didn't you take a sample of the shoes from the canteen [where they are sold]?"
After the government closes its questioning to show that in its opinion, shoes pose a threat, the question arises: why are the plastic flip flops not allowed in the cell either. Do these too pose a security risk? The answer is yes. Gans has had enough. The arguments about both shoes and flip flops is that they would allow prisoners to literally stick to the ground, making them indomitable foes in confrontations with staff.
"Come on, I've seen my sons wrestle wearing those things. I wouldn't want to wrestle wearing those things, you'd break your ankle before you did anything else," he says, implying the possibility of getting traction with them and then fighting guards is about as sure a thing as getting traction on black ice on the 401.
Gans is clearly miffed at the government's lack of preparation on the case. As Jeffrey says Hassan has refused certain garments, which are only worn by women prisoners, Gans asks if these garments have been brought for him to examine. No. Are Hassan's or someone else's running shoes available to examine? No.
Is the jacket that Hassan allegedly wears in the yard in the middle of winter (Hassan has never been given such a jacket) available to view? No.
"Am I to guess at all of this?" Gans demands,. "I'd like to see what this gentleman is given when it is 30 below and he's out in the yard. Does the jacket have a hood?"
Geswaldo is unsure. "I believe it does." Gans rolls his eyes yet again.
Geswaldo explains that jackets are a security risk because they can be thrown over another person's head in a confrontation. He says they would also prevent guards from checking to see if inmates are breathing at night (this of course does not prevent prisoners from having blankets, which would serve the same purpose of preventing one from seeing if someone is breathing!)
Gans is trying to wrap his head around the lack of clarity here. "So let me get this straight, the sneakers are left outside of the door of his cell at all times," Gans sums up, and that Hassan is allowed to wear them in yard or on the way to the shower. "Tell me then," he continues sarcastically, "how he doesn't jump the guards on the way to the shower or brace himself in the yard with these sneakers and beat up on guards!"
It is theatre of the ridiculous. It would be wholly laughable if it were not so serious that Hassan is in day 23 of a hunger strike for this very basic demand: he does not want to walk about in socks on a cold concrete cell floor. Yet the government behaves as if giving him shoes will create not only a superhuman security threat, it could undermine the very foundation of the "correctional" system in the province.
Greer is on hand to present computer printouts which state the heat is working in Hassan;s cell. Although there are no probes which actually record the temperature inside his cell, he says that there is an average temperature in the general area of his cell which is recorded. The judge remains skeptical.
"If the HVAC system is anything like it is in this courthouse, we know that it isn't working," Gans says. "In this building it's too hot, and I'm going through menopause so I need to strip down."
The government also points out that Hassan has refused to be placed in the special needs unit or "protective custody," where sexual offenders and prison "rats" are often sent. If he were there, he would be in a space with ten other prisoners. While there is a common space, all the prisoners would have to return to their cells if Hassan were to use the common area. This would create resentment and hostility towards Almrei.
In conversation with Hassan, he has said that all he wants is to have a bit more humane treatment in his cell with respect to guarding against winter cold. Give him that, he says, and he will continue his lonely vigil in solitary, awaiting his bail hearing at the end of November. It does not seem too much to ask.
Indeed, the outrage which has arisen over his case is evident in cards and letters he is receiving from around the world, supporting his hunger strike.
But to the ministry, it is one voice of resistance too many. In an area of daily life that is all too hidden, the treatment of prisoners in Canada, especially of those who are behind bars because they are refugees without "proper" paperwork, is abominable. Gans' closing remarks must have sent shivers down the spines of ministry bureaucrats who have been trying to brush off the issue.
Gans urges Hassan to start eating again, as "you've made a real beach-head here, sir," he says, noting the issue has received a wide airing and that he has gathered around him a large group of supporters. Gans remarks that he is eager to visit the prison and get a peak at the conditions inside, and asks Geswaldo to promise not to send the judge to solitary when he visits.
We speak with Hassan from the jail later Tuesday evening,. He is weak and dizzy, and does not feel up to another trip to court in the morning. This morning's trip made him horribly nauseous, bouncing around in the back of a police wagon while handcuffed, falling a number of times in the van and hurting his back. He is in no state to be hustled about town in such a manner, and will begin day 24 of his hunger strike Wednesday morning.
Press ask us if we will encourage Hassan to end the hunger strike given the judge's comments. It's not our role to stop Hassan's hunger strike, we say, That role belongs to the ministry, whose refusal to act has forced Hassan into this hunger strike.
One hopes that following Wednesday's hearing, Gans will turn his attention to the only people who can stop the hunger strike: the bureaucrats who, it is hoped, he will compel to provide Hassan with shoes, a jacket, and a guarantee of proper heat for the remainder of his time at Metro West. Without that victory, Hassan will continue his hunger strike.
It's really not too much to ask, is it?
For more information: Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, firstname.lastname@example.org, (416) 651-5800, www.homesnotbombs.ca
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