By Mina Ramos
Since 2013, different individuals detained at the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) for immigration reasons have been fighting for their freedom and to end immigration detention. M was involved in the initial hunger strike in 2013 that started a series of organizing from within the CECC.
Although he is now released, M still works with several different organizations to support migrants coming into this country and to end immigration detention. I sat down with M to talk about his experience balancing his mental health while in detention and his ideas as to what can be done to create a world centered on humanity.
Mina: What was your overall experience like while in immigration detention?
M: Throughout the whole ordeal, it was basically CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) going back and forth with the country I was born in trying to confirm my identity and CBSA trying to get identity documents for me. It’s hard to describe the feel of being incarcerated in a maximum security prison. You’re going through the routine on a daily basis as to what they want you to do, how they want you to live, down to what they want you to eat. The conditions there were horrible. I can’t tell you enough about what people who are incarcerated go through. Communication was the biggest aspect of it. You’re going through so many different things and you want to talk to your lawyer but that was so hard because with the system that is setup up you are making collect calls. Sometimes the people you have to call, can’t call take collect calls because there is a menu and they have to setup up calling you direct. Sometimes instead they’ll set up a meeting to come visit but this is also hard for them to make the time for because the jail I was in was so far away.
As far as hygiene, healthcare, medication, all they could really do was issue you anti-depressants. That was the easiest thing you could get. Once you’re on these pills, it alters your mind and you are pretty much dependent on that. They are so quick to issue these pills. There is so much more to healthcare that they don’t seem to understand. First of all, if of you need a psychiatrist, there is no help. For the time I was in jail, I never once saw a psychiatrist because CBSA knows that if a psychiatrist diagnoses you with mental health issues it becomes more difficult to deport you. So they deny you this access.
It’s an everyday fight because you are locked up with people who are sentenced with crimes and regardless of your viewpoints on prison, it messes with you that you have no convictions while on immigration hold, but are still in jail because you are an immigrant. That takes a toll on your soul, on your mental capability just to be human. You have to understand, you don’t even know why you are there in the first place and they will never really tell you because all it is is that they are trying to deport you but for whatever reason they can’t put you on the plane. So you are just there wasting away. You start to lose ties to your family outside who can’t visit you often. When they do, the visits are only twenty minutes. In twenty minutes you can’t really have an actual conversation. I would tell my family not to come because I didn’t want to put them through that strain. The fact that you are in a prison uniform alone discourages you everyday.
One time, I went to go see a doctor and I will never forget this scenario; when I was in the elevator and I was in chains. There was a kid in the elevator and he’s looking at me and asks his father “What did this guy do”. This was a four year-old kid. So, him seeing me would probably remain in his brain the rest of life. He probably has never seen something like this. He’s looking at me like, “this man is in chains. Why? I don’t understand.”
This is the type of image that CBSA projects.
Mina: You mentioned you had to deal with the stress of being in jail and then on top of that not knowing if you would be deported or released. How did you deal with that?
M: I don’t know. I don’t want to say I was strong-minded because that would send the wrong message. What CBSA tries to do is break you into submission. Everyday you go onto the range and manage to play games. it becomes your entire life that just repeats. Everyday you get up and do the same things. The lack of communication to the outside world makes it that jail is all you think about. You’re with thirty to forty people in the same situation. Naturally there is drama. People are frustrated and when they are frustrated, it leads to violence. There was a lot of violence. Some of it I am not proud of, but order has to be maintained in any society. In a jail society, there are so many power struggles and to deal with this you have to be strong mentally and physically. During all that stress, the only outlet that I had was working out. I made sure that I built my body and stayed healthy as much as that could help me. Even working out though is not pleasure. You had to get your mind in the fact that anything could happen. You see people stabbed and passing out. Immigration detention is a situation where people can die. I told myself I am not going to die in here and that kept me strong. I decided I would organize myself and make sure I let people know what was going on. A lot of times organizing and building awareness from inside jail on what I was going through is what kept me going.
Mina: What specific mental health resources were there why you were in jail?
M: It wasn’t about the system diagnosing you. It was about telling the nurse “I can’t sleep” or I am thinking about this or that. The dominant prescription they would give you is Seroquel and it has some major side effects. That stuff was everywhere, it was like water. There were so many people on it and it would get your mind weak and people were being taken advantage of. You’re not really sober enough to understand what is going on around you. You are basically sleep-walking and attracting violence.
Mina: It’s been over three years since you’ve been detained. What was your transition out of jail like and how have you managed to keep yourself grounded?
M: Listen, I have seen so many psychiatrists since I’ve been out and the most common thing they say is that I have PTSD. They say man, you have so much trauma something really serious must have happened to you.
I don’t like to believe this because I like to stay strong especially when dealing with my kids and my daily outside life. I have a very supportive family that has helped me throughout. There are slips that happen. There are different ways that I cope. Every morning I tell myself today is gonna be a better day. That’s it. Sometimes I drink a lot. Me knowing myself before I went through this whole dilemma, I was taking care of myself and I was able to work and provided for myself but the stress that is related to this doesn’t allow yourself to see you that way. And there are minimal things that the public healthcare can do for you. Half the help I am seeking I am paying out of my pocket. The damage is done. You got to understand I spent three and a half years in maximum security prison. There is no freedom and you’ve been told this over and over again while you are in there. This has such a huge impact on what your life is during and after. Not everyone has the same experience than me, but I can tell you about my foundation. Some of the experiences I’ve been through before this all happened, I think equipped me to deal with everything CBSA put me through.
So here I am, three and a half years later and I notice that I am not myself. When I am dealing with my kids sometimes I yell. Sometimes I get aggressive even though I know that it’s not their fault. Who do I blame in this case? I can’t blame anybody, it’s my life. That’s what I mean when I say the damage is done. I can’t find any answers to it, it doesn’t matter how many psychiatrists I see a day, I am still struggling. Some of the people I have been locked up with are also released but they are doing way worse than I am. Some of them turn to drugs. Some of them can’t cope. There has been instances where people got deported to their own countries and commit suicide. It’s so hypocritical, some people came here to seek refuge, get incarcerated, get deported back to the country where they were seeking refuge and then kill themselves. Where is the guilt? The government has to respond to these situation? If Canada is supposed to be a safe haven of the modern world, then why is this happening? What are people supposed to do? The system dedicates itself to keeping this image in the world. They say come here but the reality is that they detain you. Imagine people come searching for a better life and end up in prison. This is something that a lot of people can’t cope with.
Is Canada here to help or is Canada here to destroy? What they are doing is violence.
Mina: Since you’ve been detained, you’ve been organizing in different ways to work with people to carve out a little bit more humanity in the world. Part of this has involved working to end immigration detention. Beyond these things, what does it mean to create a liberated world that takes into account the trauma that people have gone through?
M: My principle is pro-humanity. My principle is anti-detention. There has to be an alternative to this. I mean I understand that prisons are supposed to create opportunities for employment and economy for communities, but human nature dictates otherwise. Human nature tells us how to be humane regardless of what your status is or the crimes you have committed. So, for an entire institution to be built on this, people are making money somewhere. It costs two hundred and fifty dollars a day to keep someone in immigration detention and this is taxpayer money. This is where your money is going.
These thoughts are what inspired and sparked myself and others to go on a hunger strike back in 2013. For me it lasted thirty-two days in order to have some sort of affirmative response. I had to starve myself just to get the bail program and and for CBSA to listen. During this time, they came to me and said, you have to stop and I told them this is my god-given right. I was sickened with their laws so I had to do something. I had to organize people to make them understand that we don’t have to be in this situation and I had to help them believe this.
Moving forward, we got to centralize the people who have been through this. You got to get to know them. You have to understand that they’ve been through so much atrocity that some of these people are not in their right minds now. So you have to organize some basic foundation that people can lean on. We have to get people their basic needs as in what they need to survive. We have to get people work permits. Most of these people are willing to work but you can’t even get a work permit even after everything you’ve been through. There are no workshops that are guaranteed to you, nothing that really helps you along the way once you are released. We need this.
In order for you to understand my trail of thoughts, you have to put yourself in my position. I’ve witnessed death and people being kept in some pretty seriously inhumane conditions. On the flip side, when speaking out about this I’ve had people approach me to tell my story for their own personal gain. Don’t take mine or anyone else’s misfortunes for personal gain; ever. To understand what goes on in these maximum security prisons you have to be in one. No matter how much you read about it or speak to people about it, you will just never understand if you don’t go through it. Bigotry, in whatever way it plays out has no place in my world. If you do approach me or anyone else who has gone through this don’t ask hypocritical questions and devote your life to making real differences.
I am not a genius in politics. I don’t understand politics. What I do understand is humanity and this is the basis of what society was built on. We neglect humanity as much as we want, but my fight is not just for me and if people actually believe in humanity, people like Justin Trudeau should be booking time to talk to me.
I am not saying I would put myself on the front lines, because it takes a whole body of people to do this work, but I do work with certain networks and people who are on the same page with me. Governments have to think twice about their principles and philosophies about what it means to be human. I come from a small country but I see my people mobilize, which is my foundation, which is my root. Me being in Canada, I struggle everyday with mental health. I struggle with addiction. I am not ashamed to say it. What I know is that humanity as a whole will one day conquer. Because we are people of different backgrounds but one thing that we have in common is that when we centralize as humanity no one will defeat us.
I am going to Manitoba today and I am going to be there to support people who are now coming into the country. Even though I have been through what I have been through, there is no way that I cannot support this people. These are times where I feel and I know that I can make a difference.
So yeah, this whole idea turns into who is in control and about who is dictating people’s lives and how we carve freedom from that.
Mina is a mixed race queer who is based out of Brampton ON. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues ground- ed in resistance movements of all kinds and the intricate connection to spiritual- ity but speci cally organizes in the realm of migrant justice