It seems that the decision to close the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre (KIHC) was made in December 2011, and the facility is no longer operational. Postmedia News broke the story this week. The KIHC, a unique prison expressly designed to detain persons held on ‘security certificates’ under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, opened in April 2006.
The official rationale for its closure almost six years later was “to allow the agency to better align its resources,” according to a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson. It is unsurprising that the decision to close the facility was informed by financial considerations, as it was always an expensive prison-within-a-prison, and it had long been dormant.
Along with many human rights groups, social justice advocates, and supporters of the campaign to abolish security certificates, I have been calling for the closure of the KIHC for years, so this news is most welcome. My celebration of this announcement is qualified, though, for two reasons.
First, the minimal information that we have about the closure of KIHC leaves some important unanswered questions. Specifically, what are the current arrangements for the detention of persons subject to security certificates? There are still three men on conditional release facing security certificate proceedings – Mohamed Harkat, Mohamed Mahjoub, and Mahmoud Jaballah. Hypothetically, any of these men could be detained by the CBSA following an alleged breach of their release conditions.
In the case of a severe breach, a Federal Court judge could order one of them returned to long-term imprisonment. This is unlikely, but not impossible, especially given the CBSA’s history of unreasonable arrests and intrusive house raids in certificate cases. Where would a person be detained in such circumstances? For opponents of the ‘secret trial’ process, understanding these provisions offers important insights into the federal government’s vision for the future of the certificate regime.
The second reason for my ambivalence about the closure of the KIHC is the legacy that the institution leaves behind. I would feel more comfortable going forward if I knew that the facility was ordered closed because the arrangements governing its operation and the form of detention it made possible were deemed to be untenable – either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. As it stands, the KIHC project is as a testament to the viability of a Canadian ‘special prison’ model that normalizes an exceptional form of detention.
To appreciate the legacy of the KIHC, it is worth reviewing its origins, purpose, and governing arrangements.
The Emergence of the KIHC
In at least one respect, prisons are like superheroes: you can learn a lot about their purpose, character, and abilities by figuring out their ‘origin stories.’ The KIHC, in keeping with its exceptional nature, has two such stories – one related to the particular problems faced by governments involved in security certificate detention in 2005, and another that can be traced back to conversations in the Canadian government in the months following the events of 11 September, 2001. The interweaving of these two stories gave rise to the KIHC1.
When the Canadian Government issued security certificates against the Secret Trial Five, they made use of a standing arrangement whereby ‘maximum security’ immigration detainees are held in provincial prisons. These facilities are not intended for long-term detention. As the years dragged on and the security certificate detainees vigorously contested their cases, the conditions of their detention became a subject of protest. A protracted series of hunger strikes generated public attention and political pressure.
Memoranda from this time period, obtained under Access to Information (ATI) law, discusses the pressure that the Government of Ontario was putting on the federal government to develop an alternative arrangement. From the provincial perspective, the cases – which are federal in jurisdiction – were generating negative publicity and raising questions about provincial detention facilities. By summer 2005, it was clear that the current situation was untenable, and the federal government began planning a federal “solution.”
After considering a range of options, it was decided that the best solution would be to create a special maximum-security prison within an already-existing maximum-security prison. Millhaven was selected as the location because it had an unused building on its grounds that could be retrofitted, and because it was roughly midway between Ottawa and Toronto, where the detainees were then being held. This origin story depicts the emergence of the KIHC as a response to political pressures, an effective hunger strike campaign, and legal challenges regarding existing conditions of detention.
1 For a detailed account of the emergence of KIHC and its governing arrangements, see
Larsen, M. & J. Piché. (2009). “Exceptional State, Pragmatic Bureaucracy, and Indefinite Detention: The Case of the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre”, Canadian Journal of Law and Society 24(2): 203-229. Available online here.
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