Through the Wire

A Unique Bond Connects Detained Migrants and Peterborough Activists

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A hunger strike started one morning in September of 2013 at Central East Correctional Centre, just outside Lindsay, Ontario. One hundred and ninety-one men who were locked up on administrative holds arising from their immigration status refused to eat until their conditions were improved.

The detainees had only recently been transferred to Central East, a large, mixed, multi-level facility designed to hold people serving criminal sentences and people awaiting trial on criminal charges in medium or maximum security, from various other sites, when the hunger strike began. Collected in one place, they had grasped an instantaneous group consciousness that, combined with the bleak conditions at Central East, triggered the strike.

A group of supporters gathered outside the prison over the following days, alerted to the hunger strike by media reports and by messages from groups like No One Is Illegal (NOII), chanting and banging pots loudly enough for the detainees inside to hear.

As the strike died down in the following weeks and conditions inside normalized, links between the detainees inside and the supporters outside deepened, developing into a network—eventually dubbed the End Immigration Detention Network or EIDN—of people communicating with and for detainees, using their freedom to expand the reach of the detainees beyond the prison walls.

Collected in one place, they had grasped an instantaneous group consciousness that, combined with the bleak conditions at Central East, triggered the strike.

This kind of solidarity work, where outside activists become instruments of imprisoned people, could become a model for future political organizing, as growing inequality, insecurity, and climate change lead to increased global migration pressures—and as governments respond by treating migrants as if they were public threats.

Immigration detention has been identified as a violation of human rights by the United Nations, but there’s little public awareness of the issue, let alone active sympathy, so little hope for a major change. What change does come will be the result of the detainees’ own courageous opposition to immigration detention and the support of the network.

This link between two groups of activists resisting the criminalization of migration, one on the inside organizing to improve their own conditions and the other on the outside organizing in support, is a powerful story that is not well known. This article is about that link and the people who maintain it.

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Central East Correctional Centre sits on an isolated piece of flat Ontario farmland just outside Lindsay and about a half hour’s drive from Peterborough. In a place where you might expect to find an aggregate silo, there’s a massive, sprawling complex for storing people instead.

Built in the 1990s and opened in 2002, Central East is a product of the tough-on-crime policies of Mike Harris’ right-wing Progressive Conservative government, and of a desperate civic boosterism that wanted to see jobs in a region that had few innate attractions to industry.

The facility is both a jail and a prison, meaning that it houses people who have been sentenced and people who are awaiting trial, which is the majority, about 70% of the total population. Because the sentenced population is so small, the province isn’t under any obligation to provide programming, making Central East, remarkably, bleaker than an actual prison.

The inmates that aren’t serving sentences are held there while awaiting trial ostensibly because if they were released pending trial, they would simply disappear. They are people with nowhere to go, many of them struggling with poverty, mental illness, or addictions, highly marginalized, but not a threat.

Encircled in barbed wire, the prison is a chilling emblem of the horrors of global inequality.

There are no community services for prisoners in Lindsay, and organizations in Peterborough are not funded to work at Central East. It is very much a social vacuum, which is part of its appeal to tough-on-crime governments that want people targeted by the law to suffer.

Central East does have its own private police force, though, a product of negotiation between province and the City of Lindsay, which only approved the facility on condition that its own policing resources wouldn’t be stretched any further. This internal police force is responsible for inmate-on-inmate criminal matters, and is remarkably prolific, laying 600 charges against inmates last year alone.

Central East is also a major employer. It’s the fourth largest public sector employer in City of Kawartha Lakes after the hospital, the school board, and the municipal government, and more than three times as big as the biggest private sector employer.

A strike by the prison guards was recently narrowly averted. Safety was a key issue in the dispute. Conditions are unsafe because of overcrowding at the prison, but the way the union reacts is to work to rule, doing only the bare minimum, which means prisoners are routinely in lockdown. Prisoners suffer, and the whole model of mass incarceration is never questioned.

Canadian Border Security Agency, the federal agency that polices borders and migration, leases space from the province, paying a per diem rate for each detainee plus an added administrative fee. Because Central East is architecturally structured in little pods, it was easy to use one of the pods to house detainees. Border Security and police are formally distinct, but they work closely together in practice.

As cruel as it is to the detainees and their families to hold them in a facility that is so hard to reach, it seems likely that isolation is part of the punitive appeal of Central East for immigration detention as much as it is for the general population. Encircled in barbed wire, the prison is a chilling emblem of the horrors of global inequality.





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Since the hunger strike in 2013, activists on the outside have protested in a number of ways, and have built relationships with inmates through various venues, but the core thread of the relationship between the detainees and the activists outside is a phone line—more specifically a TRAPP line, a service that allows cell phones to mimic a landlines.

Calls from prison are subject to a number of restrictions that make it difficult to contact the detainees. Calls from Central East are limited to 20 minutes, after which the prison will end the call, and have to be made collect. If the prison is locked down, there are no calls.

The sense of foreboding and fear is constant. “You feel like you’ve done something wrong, people are watching you.”

The stipulation that calls have to be made collect isn’t just a financial barrier. It’s also a technical barrier, because cell phones can’t accept collect calls. TRAPP lines, which essentially anchor a cell phone call to a landline, are a common way people communicate with inmates.

For EIDN organizers who rely on regular communication with the detainees in Central East, the line is indispensable. “It’s our main source of communication,” one of the organizers says, “our easiest way to reach people.”

Beyond the TRAPP line, EIDN does physical visits to the prison, not on a regular basis, but when there’s a driver and car available, and people have time, which usually means about every weekend or every other weekend.

The visits are friendly but, given the environment, not pleasant. The sense of foreboding and fear is constant. “You feel like you’ve done something wrong, people are watching you,” the organizer says, and you see “so much frustration” as families, and often young children, wait in line for an hour, under the watchful eye of generally unfriendly staff, for a 20-minute visit.

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The people who are detained at Central East all have complex, interesting, and unique lives. Often detention on an immigration status-related administrative hold follows other marginalizations: racism, poverty, and a struggle to find a place in an unfriendly and unsupportive society.

It’s important to note that the detainees are not criminals. They are held at Central East, at least officially, only because they’re deemed unlikely to attend administrative hearings on their immigration status. Some have criminal records, but if they do, they’ve served their sentences and would be released if they were Canadian citizens.

They can’t leave Central East, officially, because they have not completed the administrative steps to establish their immigration status, or because their status is so complex as to be incalculable. For that, they are effectively jailed indefinitely.

One detainee, Ako Sandy, was arrested in January 2014 and served a criminal sentence until February 2015—when he was transferred to immigration detention.

He was three years old when he moved to Canada from Grenada in 1995. “I grew up living in living rooms at my aunt’s house with my mom,” he says, “and then went to a shelter until they placed us in housing.” An active kid who excelled at sports, Ako had a hard adolescence, and was living on his own from age 15.

On good days, Ako would play basketball with friends and follow pro basketball, watching games regularly on TV. He’d spend time with his family. But making a living never came easy.

They can’t leave Central East, officially, because they have not completed the administrative steps to establish their immigration status, or because their status is so complex as to be incalculable. For that, they are effectively jailed indefinitely.

Still, his immigration status was never explicitly a problem until he was arrested. Now he faces an uncertain future at Central East.

“I am really close to my family and my true friends that care about me,” he says. “Being in detention is a lot on my family. They’re taking it very hard but they are supportive of my release.”

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A key constituency of the people organizing with EIDN in Peterborough are young people, many of whom came to organizing through Youth 4 Global Change, a currently defunct group that used to operate under the auspices of Jamaican Self-Help and the leadership of Ayendri Perera.

People were organizing in support of detainees locally from September 2013 on, but a huge influx of energy came at the annual Building a Movement conference in November, 2014, when Youth 4 Global Change decided that immigration detention would be the theme for the coming year. Now with Y4GC no more, some of those young activists are still involved.

One of these youth is Alecia Golding, who was the featured speaker at a Family Day rally outside Central East last year. She attended the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa August 2014, where she met people from No One is Illegal Toronto who were talking about immigration detention. Since then she has been a part of EIDN, working to support detainees.

Born in Scarborough in the late 1990s, Alecia moved to Peterborough with her family at age five. “While we were here, my mom did a placement at the Lindsay Jail and went back to school.” Both her parents were immigrants, mom from England, dad from Jamaica, though her mom adapted easily while her dad struggled.

When she was a child, her mother would braid her hair, but when she was ten she told her mother she wanted to wear her hair to school natural. The fall-out was seismic. She “became the biggest joke at school. People called me names, made fun of me and my hair.”

“I am supposed to be a supporter. It was my path in life and now I need to dedicate as much time and effort because I am meant to be here and working with this group.”

“That day with my hair made me realize that I will always be pointed out for the differences that I have,” she says. “I had to decide if I would embrace what I had or give the power to the people that wanted to mock me. I then became a more confident child, wearing and doing alternative things.”

Now Alecia lives with her family in the north end in a co-op, and works in the deli department at the Sobeys on Tower Hill Road. She likes the customers, but finds her sexist, homophobic co-workers unpleasant. “I work to survive,” she says.

On her time off, she writes. She recently curated a series of Facebook posts for Black History Month highlighting black women in particular. “All through school I felt like I never fit in with people. Since I finished school, I have worked on finding more people like me. I can honestly say where I am now and the people I talk to now have created the best part of my life.”

Working with EIDN is a big part of that. “Writing letters to detainees and running rallies is satisfying work, because I enjoy doing those things.” But when it comes to the big issues, of ending indefinite detention, “the work is exhausting and frustrating. It is so hard to fix an unjust system and it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.”

Working with detainees to end immigration detention, however overwhelming a goal, is Alecia’s main focus. “I am supposed to be a supporter,” she says. “It was my path in life and now I need to dedicate as much time and effort because I am meant to be here and working with this group.”





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It’s hard to get access to detainees. This is an important part of the story. Getting a hold of people to interview them is not easy: visits and phone calls are unreliable. Outside organizers have close ties and have developed ways of maintaining contact, but these lines of communication are intimate, based on solidarity, and EIDN is understandably protective of them.

Central East means very harsh isolation, especially for people who are simply being warehoused for administrative reasons.

It’s hard for media to access the site. A recent Toronto Star article, for instance, quoted no detainees because of a security problem that erupted. So most media stories about the situation are superficial, or rely exclusively on expert informants who have little direct knowledge of the situation, or don’t appear at all.

But it’s especially hard for families of detainees, who are often struggling financially because of loss of income from their detained family member, to travel to Lindsay. It was much easier when the detainees were being held in Toronto, where many of the families live. Central East means very harsh isolation, especially for people who are simply being warehoused for administrative reasons.

When I approached EIDN about writing this story, and they asked the detainees about it, one detainee, Richard Abuwa, wanted to talk to me. So Richard called the TRAPP line, and it was answered by an outside organizer, who patched the call through to me. If the facility’s in lockdown, there are no calls. The first three times we arranged to put the call through, it never came. When it did, we had to re-start the conversation twice because the clock ran out.

Eventually I did speak to Richard. He told me he first came to Canada in 1985 as an eight-year-old kid, from Lagos, Nigeria via Miami, Florida, and was greeted by a father he had never known, who was a Canadian citizen. With no English, Richard was placed in English as a Second Language classes, and adapted quickly.

But the emotional toll of being separated from his mother and having to adjust to a new family dynamic was hard. “Life wasn’t 100% complete,” Richard says. “Don’t know what happened to my mum,” he says, and “that has a lot to do with what’s happened.”

Richard developed a criminal history, “being young and stupid,” which he says cancelled out opportunities. Although he got his permanent residency in 1989, he never became a citizen.

He had a lot of different jobs. He was a licensed miner, working in the Inco mine in Sudbury. Before that he was a forklift operator, working in warehouses all over. But he got fed up with “working for the man.” He saw his friends making money outside the system, and got sucked into that fantasy.

Working in the drug industry, he developed an addiction, and the fantasy became a nightmare. “I lost my family, it cost me everything I truly loved. I abandoned myself.”

Richard is a Christian, and says “everything I do is based upon God.” He believes that he’s done a lot of evil things, and the consequences have been staggering. In the last two years, he’s found God.

Last April, Richard won first place in an art competition, and was awarded $200 worth of supplies. With the support of the prison chaplain, he painted a mural at Central East, and is now doing two more.

His time served, Richard was “putting my life back together,” trying to figure out how to move on. But Border Security are “morbid individuals,” he says, who “wanted me to suffer. They came and got me two months later.”

Last April, Richard won first place in an art competition, and was awarded $200 worth of supplies. With the support of the prison chaplain, he painted a mural at Central East, and is now doing two more. He also does portraits of other detainees, partly “as a challenge to see how in-depth I could get into my art” and partly as an opportunity to connect.

Although he says his “criminal history speaks for itself,” he also believes he’s “put in an adequate amount of time.” He says he’s willing to be deported, but Nigeria doesn’t want him, as he’s been away 30 years and there’s no one there for him. “You can’t just hold me here.”

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I was talking about this article with Sasha Patterson, who is one of the EIDN outside organizers, and they pointed out that almost all the detainees are black men, and almost all the outside organizers are queer women.

Depending how you look at it, that’s either a poignant statistic or a depressing one, or just completely predictable. Certainly black men are over-policed and overrepresented in prisons generally, and over-policing is a sure way to make authorities’ attention to a problematic immigration status.

“It’s a hard place to live sometimes with a lack of diversity and challenges with racism and xenophobia,” Sasha says, “but it’s also a community full of activists, artists, and queers.”

And queer women are overrepresented among young activists, though it’s less clear why. Does the experience of one oppression make people more sensitive to oppression generally, and more eager to work alongside others fighting it? It probably does.

For Sasha certainly, being queer is a key motivator. “My queerness is something that has been really important in my life, especially in the last few years. In all of the work that I do I try to carve out spaces for queer stories and voices to be heard. I think that queerness was the catalyst for my work in activism and remains a driving force behind it.”

Sasha has lived in Peterborough for six years. They came here originally to attend Trent University and “this place just became home.” But Patterson has decidedly mixed feeling about Peterborough.

“It’s a hard place to live sometimes with a lack of diversity and challenges with racism and xenophobia,” Sasha says, “but it’s also a community full of activists, artists, and queers.”

Sasha was born in Toronto in the summer of 1990. Their mother was a single mom, though she later remarried, and they lived together in a little apartment in Cabbagetown right down the street from their grandparents’ house, where Sasha spent a lot of time listening to stories. Sasha’s childhood was “mostly fun,” but adolescence was “really hard as I began to recognize that I was queer but didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk about it with. In high school one of my close friends passed away and I had a hard time dealing with that loss.”

A month or two into being a childcare provider, Sasha makes a living “going on adventures with little humans and learning about the world with them,” and is also part of the Peterborough Poetry Collective, participating in poetry slams at a local and national level.

They’ve been working with EIDN for just over a year, and find it both exhilarating and exhausting. “Like with any struggle for justice there are small wins that deserve to be celebrated and there is a bigger picture of oppression that needs to always be in the background of all organizing.”

“In all of the work that I do,” Sasha says, “be that, poetry, organizing, or childcare, I try to centre my focus on anti-oppression and unlearning the systemic discrimination that is embedded in our society.”

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The connection between the detainees inside Central East Correctional Centre and the Peterborough activists is fragile. It’s in constant in danger of being cut by the Canadian Border Service Agency. It’s a tenuous but powerful link, embodied in a telephone wire that defies borders and fences, connecting people in their fragile and courageous humanity.

The people who work to maintain the link are not superhuman, and aren’t even particularly exceptional in most ways. Like other people who don’t have it easy, they struggle to get by, to make connections in an often hostile world, and to live their lives with honesty and compassion. The link, for all its operational practicality, is also an expression of that struggle.

What is at stake in the detention of migrants at Central East Correctional Facility is a fundamental question of human dignity and shared humanity. The EIDN Peterborough activists are involved because this is happening right nearby. That’s an injunction and a responsibility that the rest of should also have to answer to.

To get involved with EIDN in Peterborough, or to donate money to help maintain the TRAPP line, please contact [email protected]

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Senior Editor of Electric City Magazine.