- Agitation and Sudden Death:Containing Black Detainee Affect
In recent years, Native studies and critical race scholars have examined how the ongoing expansion of mental health is deeply imbricated in the unfinished project of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the Americas. Psychiatrists have delegitimized Black people's resistance through discourses of mania and pathological violence, denied accountability for genocidal policies through individualizing labels such as Residential School Syndrome, and naturalized suicide as a by-product of "Asian culture," erasing precarious migrant labor on stolen lands.1 Black, Indigenous, and queer of color affect theorists have further shown how "psy" concepts circulate within our different nations and communities through calls to heal ourselves and surveil one another.2
Through my own experiences supporting African and Afro-Caribbean migrant detainees in Ontario over the past year, I have witnessed how mental health discourses and practices perpetuate antiblack violence. Antiblack racism is structurally embedded at the crossroads of psychiatry, the criminal justice system, and immigration policy. In this essay, I focus on the ways in which diagnostic processes contribute to the normalization of antiblack violence. I analyze a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) statement and subsequent report on the death of a young Black man in Canadian immigration custody in 2015, whom I refer to as Abshir.
His story is significant for three reasons. A Somali refugee, Abshir was survived by numerous other Black migrants who remain in immigration detention. He also constitutes a startling statistic of Black and Black Muslim migrants dying in police custody in Canada.3 Current scholarship on immigration detention in Canada tends to erase the experiences of Black detainees through language such as "migrants of color."4 Second, Abshir was originally placed on immigration hold after serving time for an assault charge. Since 2012, the Canadian state has deported permanent residents serving sentences of six months or more under the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act.5 Even without a criminal record, Black migrants who overstay their visas are more likely than their non-Black counterparts to land in detention because they are more likely [End Page 339] to be stopped, searched, and questioned by police. Finally, Abshir's death occurred days before the publication of a human rights report on immigration detainees with mental health issues.6 It so happened that Abshir had a mental health record. Accounts of his death in the weeks and months that followed were overdetermined by a national crisis over detainee suicides in provincial prisons. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government opted to invest $138 million in new detention infrastructure, including "higher-quality" holding centers with enhanced mental health services.7
In summary, while liberal health advocates have secured more funding for specialized detainee mental health services, they have failed to comprehend how Black people are already subject to early detection and crisis intervention, a fact that has directly contributed to the criminalization, detentions, deportations, and deaths of Black migrants in Canada. I argue that increased mental health assessment and treatment of immigration detainees is not only paradoxical but further exacerbates conditions of distress by contributing to the expansion, rather than the abolition, of the detention and deportations system.
Abshir's story captures this contradiction. As a young adult, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His behavior in public caught the attention of neighbors, who frequently called the police. A family spokesperson called him "agitated." Abshir's experiences of community surveillance as a mad, black threat led to an assault conviction and later detention. On the day he died, Abshir was brought to the hospital for medical reasons. According to the SIU's initial statement, hospital staff noticed that he was "agitated." An accompanying police officer restrained him, and he later died. Public responses to his death have hinged on whether he got the mental health support he needed. However, Abshir was in and out of psychiatric wards throughout adulthood. As I argue below, it was precisely because of the standard "support" practices in place for agitated patients that he died. He did not need more psychiatric interventions. Like other indefinitely detained Black men in distress, he needed to be released with his status reinstated.