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“Guilty until proven innocent”: Tyrone’s story
Published on 25/10/2021
This conversation is part of our series, “Advancing justice,” which explores the relationship between human rights, poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system.
In this month’s contribution to “Advancing justice,” Maytree president Elizabeth McIsaac speaks to Tyrone, a 25-year-old man who grew up and still lives in Scarborough. In the conversation, Tyrone talks about how his interactions with the criminal justice system began at the age of 13 when he was illegally stopped by the police in the community. And then again, at age 15, when he was charged, arrested, and held in remand because the police mistook him for another Black youth. Now, as a young man, he’s looking to share his story and give back to his community.
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Elizabeth: Welcome to “Advancing justice,” a series that explores the interface between human rights, poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system. My name is Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree. We’re a Toronto-based organization exploring solutions to poverty in Canada using a human rights-based approach. So far in our series, we’ve heard from researchers and practitioners. Today, in keeping with Maytree’s tradition of ensuring that the voice of lived experience is heard and amplified, I will be talking to Tyrone.
I first met Tyrone a few weeks back after an introduction from Amadeusz, a community-based organization which supports young people who are incarcerated to create positive change in their lives through access to education, community programs, and supports.
Since our first meeting, Tyrone and I have had a couple of conversations. He’s a 25-year-old man who grew up and still lives in Scarborough, in Toronto’s east end. Tyrone’s interactions with the criminal justice system began at the age of 13 when he was stopped by the police in the community. And then again, at age 15, when he was charged, arrested, and held in remand because the police mistook him for another Black youth.
Tyrone, thank you for being with us today. It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk to you again to have this conversation.
Tyrone, can you tell us a little bit about what growing up as a Black youth in Scarborough was like, and what some of your experiences with police were like?
Tyrone: Growing up in Scarborough as a young Black youth, it was actually very multicultural, and there were a lot of activities to do in the community. So I would usually be going into the Boys and Girls Club, or I would be playing basketball downstairs. There was a gym inside my building.
It was very fun, but there was a lot of things happening in the community that was also negative. Sometimes you would get drawn into it and you would want to know what the older people were doing. But since we were young, we just stuck to doing kids stuff, but you always noticed that there was some stuff going on that wasn’t, I would say, productive. And it would catch your eye from a young age.
Elizabeth: Did you get involved in any of that stuff or did you stick to the community programs and hanging out with your friends?
Tyrone: I stuck to the community programs and chilling with my friends, but we would do little kid stuff like “nicky nine doors” and stuff like that, but nothing too crazy.
Elizabeth: Did you have any early experiences with police in that context?
Tyrone: Yes. I had a really early experience with police.
One time when I was going to go to the basketball court in a different community, it was me and three of my other friends, we were heading down the road. And two cruisers just rolled by us.
We were walking on Kingston and Morningside, and they just said that we fit the description for a crime that happened.
And we told them, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
We were very young, like 13 years old, and we were just trying to go play basketball. So we just tried to let them know that we’re not involved in none of that type of stuff.
They told us right away, we have the right to remain silent. And they’re going to search us.
We were kind of scared because we were so young. So we said, “Shouldn’t we call our parents and have them around?”
And then they just told us that it wouldn’t be necessary. “It’ll be a quick process. We’re just going to search you guys quick. And then if you guys have nothing on you, you’ll be free to go.”
But we were very, very shocked and scared at the same time.
Elizabeth: What do you think that meant – you “fit the description”? You were 13 years old.
Tyrone: To be honest now, at 25, I feel like “fit the description” is being a young Black youth and living in that area, Galloway, because the crime rate was so high and it’s still high up to this day.
It’s just so easy to fit in, as long as you’re in a group, anybody in a group. You’re Black and you live in an area with lots of poverty and crime. Right away, you fit the description.
Elizabeth: Did you and your friends talk about that incident afterward? How did you make sense of it?
Tyrone: We talked about the incident after, right away, and we were just shocked. We didn’t even want to play basketball no more.
We went home right away to let all of our parents know. And then our parents were shocked about what happened. And they called 43 Division to just figure out, “Why would you guys search a minor without a parent around?”
They said that nothing was even in the system. So they just blowed it off, like, it didn’t even happen. Just because we were so young and didn’t take down names, badge numbers. Basically, it just went out through the air, like it never happened.
Elizabeth: What advice did your mom give you?
Tyrone: My mom said we already had a recreation centre in our building. At least there’d be adults there, recreational staff to keep an eye on you. So you’d be more safe at such a young age.
So she said, from now on, I shouldn’t go out in the community. It was a 30-minute walk. She said, I shouldn’t go anywhere that far without adult supervision. That’s what I did for, I would say, the next year and a half up to when I was almost 15.
Elizabeth: So then what happened at 15?
Tyrone: I ended up moving from Galloway around 14, and we moved to Ajax. I was going to a public school. I was playing basketball. I made it on the team, and I was just focused on school. I had a couple of good friends there. We used to just do afterschool work. It was actually a really decent community.
What happened was my mom got a divorce. She couldn’t afford to pay the rent no more at that house. We had to move back to Scarborough and that’s when we moved to Markham and Ellesmere. And this area, it’s similar, like Galloway. There’s a lot of crime going on and poverty and just not a lot of opportunities for the youth.
I was out with my friends. This is when I’m 15 now, after a year of living in Ajax, and it’s me and four of my other friends. And we’re just coming from a recreational centre that’s in the area.
We just finished swimming that day. And we were heading over to the gas station to get some Tim Horton’s. A cruiser just pulled up and said we all “fit the description.” We had to remain silent and they just cuffed us right away and brought us right into the police station.
This was pretty devastating to me because I had already been through this situation when I was 13, but they let us go that day. So I never thought it was going to go this far.
That’s where it got all so complicated.
Elizabeth: What were you being charged with?
Tyrone: They charged us for an armed robbery that happened a week prior to our arrests. They said that there were five people that robbed some lady at an intersection.
But they had no physical evidence of the crime. We weren’t on camera. We had no prints. We had no weapons, nothing of that nature. And, actually, a couple of us even had an alibi where we were.
When you’re charged, they say you’re innocent until proven guilty. But you’re actually guilty until you’re proven innocent. Because when you get charged, you have to fight to get your way. If you don’t have an alibi or a good lawyer, a good support team, you could literally sit in jail for years before anything happens.
Elizabeth: You were arrested, you’re 15 years old. You’re told that you’re being charged with armed robbery. Do you get an opportunity to go to court where you can post for bail? Or what happened?
Tyrone: Right away, when I get arrested, they take me to Brookside and I had court the next day.
Elizabeth: Brookside is a youth detention centre. And to be clear, it’s in Cobourg, Ontario, which is about a hundred kilometers away from where you lived in Scarborough. So that’s where they’ve taken you.
Tyrone: I was very shocked because I never even been out that far myself. We always been living in the GTA area. So I was very shocked, and I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on. I almost had a panic attack, actually, but I just had to get myself together because I knew that would only make things worse for me.
I believe in God, so I was just praying that when I get to the Brookside Youth Detention Centre, hopefully I could just make a phone call, and my mom could get me out of this situation as soon as possible.
Elizabeth: At this point, you haven’t even talked to your mom. You’re being brought to Cobourg, to Brookside, and you haven’t spoken to your mom yet?
Tyrone: No, I never got to speak to my mom. They only gave me a call to speak to a legal aid lawyer. And after that, for some reason, that day there were so many other people that were arrested, they were only trying to do the mandatory legal aid calls. But they didn’t want nobody to even have a chance to call a surety, which didn’t make sense.
Elizabeth: You must’ve been scared.
Tyrone: Oh yeah. I was really scared because it’s my first time getting arrested, and you’re panicking because you didn’t do nothing. And then now you’re just getting treated like the worst of the worst.
I’m so young and four of my other friends are arrested. We were scared. We didn’t want to get a record or anything like that. We’re missing school. So it was all just a lot of pain.
Elizabeth: You were held at Brookside for a couple of weeks. Was it four weeks that you were there?
Tyrone: Yes, I was there for four weeks.
Elizabeth: So what was that like? Can you tell me a bit about what that experience was like?
Tyrone: That was a very frightening experience because there’s a lot of gang activity going on. So people are going to ask you, “Where are you from? Are you in a gang?” And then if you’re not in a gang, you almost become vulnerable because then they just look at you like an outsider.
So people were getting their food taken. Sometimes people were getting jumped. People were even getting extorted. It was just like so much going on that a lot of people were even hurting themselves because they couldn’t take all that was going on.
What helped me was talking to family, praying. And it just so happened, the range that I was on, the pod, that the people that were gang-affiliated used to live in my old area. So basically I got a pass. I got lucky in that aspect, because if it wasn’t for that, then I would have been getting extorted and jumped and all these not so good things, you know?
Elizabeth: Because they knew you from the neighbourhood, they said, We’re not going to touch you. We know that you’re a good kid, really leaving you alone. Was it that obvious?
Tyrone: Yeah, it was that obvious. And that was that quick of a process. I was very, very lucky because, you know, I’m seeing other things happen. Fights and stuff like that. It’s just like that easily could have been me if I went to a different pod or range. So I was happy for that, but I was very stressed out. I barely could sleep. I wasn’t really eating the food. The only thing that was keeping my head up was just my mom, because she even came, drove down there to visit me and told me, “Don’t worry, this is all going to get figured out and just stay strong.”
Elizabeth: So, four weeks. You’re 15 years old. It’s a youth detention centre. Was there programming? What kind of supports or programs were available to the young people being held there?
Tyrone: That was the most crazy thing, because there was actually no school programs going on. There was only a basketball court, and they had a small gym where you could exercise. There was only a program that you could do if you wanted to do substance abuse, anger management, and a couple other programs that I cannot recall at the moment, but they were more for self-awareness. You couldn’t continue in your education.
Elizabeth: You’re missing four weeks of school. So you’re completely out of the loop in your education at this point.
Tyrone: Exactly. And that’s why I feel people lost hope in there and started causing trouble. People were just all shoved into one small confinement with not a lot of stuff to do. So they start making up things to do themselves that is not necessarily peaceful and productive.
Elizabeth: At the end of four weeks, you’re released. What happened? What prompted that release? Why were you released?
Tyrone: I finally was released because when they checked out the camera information, there was a next robbery. I think that was about three weeks in, and it was the same exact people. It was about five of them, just so they arrested me and four of my other friends. And it was a similar thing. A guy went and robbed a couple – or, four of them went and robbed a couple. And this time it was very violent.
I guess the police were already in the area doing surveillance. So when it happened, they actually caught them on the scene. And that’s when it went on the news. Right away, our parents were on it to let the police know that these must be the real suspects because it’s kind of the same nature of what happened the last time. And our lawyers were on top of it. That’s when they figured out that, yes, it has to actually be these guys. They’re the real suspects.
At the end of the day, none of us had a record. A couple of us had an alibi, so they didn’t really have a strong case against us to hold us anymore. They had to let us go.
Elizabeth: As you’ve described your time in there, it sounds like it was traumatic. You’re 15 years old, you’re far away from home, and you’re being accused of something that you haven’t done, but you’re not seeing justice being done. How were you released? What was the process around being released?
Tyrone: The process of being released was actually pretty scary. Because when I got released, my mom’s car broke down. She was supposed to come and pick me up.
When they let me out, it was kind of random. I didn’t know that I was going to get out. They just gave me a token and told me that there’s a Via Rail train station just down the road. And if I go this way, make a right, make a left, I’ll find it.
And I’m not from the area. So I was just a little confused.
I was asking them, “Is it possible that you guys could call a taxi or something like that? There’s no way you guys could give me a little bit of cash?” And they just brushed me off and said, I should be happy that I’m even released.
And just kind of like: “Get outta here.”
So I was very disturbed. I started walking on this street. I didn’t really know where to go. I started making a couple lefts and rights. And then a lady saw me walking with like a couple of bags that had some of my school stuff that I had from the day that I got arrested.
So she saw I looked very disturbed and she just asked me, am I okay? And where am I going? And I just told her, “I’m just trying to find the train station. I don’t know where it is. I just got released out of the Brookside Youth Detention Centre.”
She just felt very sad for me and said the train station is a good 20 minutes away. So she just gave me $20. She called a cab and said the cabbie would take care of me from there and make sure I get to the Via Rail train station.
Elizabeth: So then you got on a train and came back to Toronto.
Tyrone: Yeah, I got on the train. I came back to Toronto and that’s when I was able to call my mom when I got to the GO station. And then she already had her friend ready that was driving to come and pick me up and just make sure I can get back home as soon as possible. So I could be back with my family.
Elizabeth: The system didn’t provide any programs or supports for your exit. I’m assuming there was no apology for the wrongful arrest.
Tyrone: No apology. No help whatsoever.
Elizabeth: So now you’re back in Scarborough. Do you go back to school? Does your life change now or is it like nothing ever happened?
Tyrone: I would say my life changed. I went back to school. At first I tried to just get my head right in the books, stay positive and try to let bygones be bygones. But the high school that I was going to was in my old neighbourhood, in Galloway.
A lot of youth heard what happened and they heard that me and four of my other friends got arrested. They actually thought that we did it.
So when I was at the school, people were almost trying to glorify me about what happened. You almost started to get a glorified feeling. It was a feeling I never really felt at school before, because I was more like, I would say, an outsider. I would just do my schoolwork, sometimes hang with friends, but mostly stick to myself.
So now when I saw how people were treating me, it switched up my mind frame. And I would say also I was dealing with some mental health issues upon being released after just being in such a devastating situation.
One kid basically told me, “All these people that are attracted to you now, you can make some money off of them, if you want to sell a bit of weed.”
At first I was just like, I shouldn’t do it because it’s going to put me in the situation that I was just in. In my brain at the time I was already always getting pulled over and harassed for stuff I didn’t even do. At the time it was just like, I might as well actually do something so when I go to jail, it won’t be for nothing.
It’s very sad that I was thinking that way, but that was the reality of me being released.
Elizabeth: That you now have a reputation, and you’re living up to it.
And that’s why I just started selling a little bit of weed at the high school and stuff like that.
At first, it was all cool. I would say for almost a year and a half, and then just like anything, you know, things catch up to you when you’re doing wrong.
And then there’s a teacher one day. I’ll never forget that day. It was snowing. I wasn’t even supposed to necessarily go to school. But I just always went to school in general.
Not necessarily just to sell weed, but I actually did my schoolwork too, and I did sports. So I wasn’t just like in it for one thing, I was in it for kind of everything. It was just like a fun time, I would say, as a kid. So when I get to the school now I had the weed. I put the weed in my Dickies pockets, but it’s poking out at the side. Anybody could see it, if you just looked into my pocket. It was probably like seven grams at the time.
And so I go to class and I’m chillaxing and I’m doing my work.
I guess the weed must have smelled in the classroom. So the teacher called the vice-principal, and we always had a police officer in our school, too, and they came up right to my classroom door and they just called me out. As soon as I went out, the officer said, “I got suspicion that you have some marijuana on you. So I’m going to have to search you in the principal’s office and see what’s going on.”
Elizabeth: And so then what happened?
Tyrone: I had the weed right in my pocket. So right when we got to the office, I just took it out and gave it to him. And I just said, “I have some weed right here.” I tried to pull a fast one and say it was for personal use.
This is when reality was starting to sink in. It was very scary because I knew the repercussions of my acts.
But at the time I didn’t think I was going to get caught because I was getting in trouble for things that I didn’t do, but I didn’t think I would get in trouble for things that I actually would do, which was very gullible. So I showed the officer the marijuana, he cuffs me right away. He says, “You have the right to remain silent. We’re going to run a search warrant on your locker, also, just to make sure you don’t have anything else.”
And that’s where I was very dumb and naive.
Earlier that day one of my friends, he had a BB gun, and he told me just to hold it down for him until the end of the day of school, because he didn’t have a backpack. So I put that in my backpack prior to the first class in the morning. And so now when they issued a search warrant for my locker, they also found the BB gun and that’s when they put the school on the lockdown and they called a couple more officers. At the time, I guess they assumed that it was a real gun.
And this is when it really hit me that if you want to be in this lifestyle, you’re gonna get yourself into some really big trouble.
At first, I didn’t really care because I already got in trouble, as I said, for things that I didn’t do and they’re already labelling me. But now that I really got in trouble for something I did do, I was pretty discouraged with myself that I gave up so quick. I feel like I could have asked for help and try to do things differently.
But when I got out, I think I held a lot of things in. I didn’t necessarily let my mom know exactly how I felt. I just tried to brush it off, but I was holding in inner demons that I needed to let out, just so I could actually do good things with my life and not just reminisce on the past.
Elizabeth: So now you’re being charged for stuff you’ve done. And now you go to a different detention centre, this time the Roy McMurtry in the west end of the City of Brampton. Was that similar to the last experience? How long were you there for? And were there supports there this time?
You’re still a high school student. You’re still a youth. What was that experience like?
Tyrone: That experience was very different. They actually built a school on the property. They had an auto mechanic shop and they also had a woodshop. So there were activities for you to do. And you could get back and enroll in school. So the educational stuff and the same programs that were in Brookside, like the substance abuse, anger management, life skills, that was all there.
But once again, the gang affiliation was still at the Roy McMurtry and a lot of people were getting tested to see if you’re this type of person. Just a lot of misery and pain was still there just like Brookside.
But this time I had to accept it and take it for what it is because I actually made the mistake and I did something wrong. So I just tried to keep my head into school and actually told myself that I can’t live like this.
This is not a life for anybody. I let my mom down, my little brothers, because I don’t want to promote that lifestyle for them.
It’s not a game and it’s only going to drag you down. Getting a record could mess up your whole future. So this is when I was honest with myself and I just said, I’m going to have to do the time. But when I get out, I really need to make some changes in my life to be a decent human being in society.
Elizabeth: When you were at the Roy, what was the legal process?
Tyrone: It took up to two weeks after I got my lawyer on the first week. I took a plea deal because I knew I was guilty and I got caught right-handed. So there was no point on wasting the youth justice system’s time. They gave me a deal. It was six months for the seven grams of the marijuana and then the BB gun.
I felt it was a lot of time. At first I thought for my first charge maybe they would have given me two months and then tried to get me back into the community, maybe probation, or get me into community service work.
But they just gave me that little bit of a lengthy sentence right away.
Elizabeth: And then when you were released from the Roy, was it similar? They just sort of, “You’re done. Here you go. Go home.” Was there any programming, was there any supports, any follow-up? What was the exit from that experience like?
Tyrone: It was literally the same thing. They just give you a bus token. They tell you, “Here’s your property. You’re released.”
No follow-up, no opportunities for when you get back into the community to have a different lifestyle. Because after you are incarcerated for some time, I wouldn’t say you’re necessarily normal. You need certain things to help you stick on the right path, or you actually will make the same mistake again.
I was a little shocked on that. But this time in my brain, I knew if I wanted to do better than I would have to make the change, and I would have to be productive myself and believe in myself. I just tried to finish school, start to work, and build a name for myself in the right way.
Elizabeth: Is that what you did? You went back to school, and you found work, and you tried to build your life again.
Tyrone: I actually got expelled from my school. They put me into a safe school at Pharmacy. When I went to the safe school, a lot of teachers, they vouched for me because even though I got in trouble, they said I wasn’t actually a bad kid. I just made a bad choice. So they vouched for me.
If I go to the safe school, usually they try to give you just like a certificate instead of an actual diploma. So I was very honoured that they had my back and they knew that I had the potential to do something good. So I was able to finish at the safe school and get a real diploma and have a mini graduation with the people that were at that school.
It was a very small class. It was up to about 15 of us. So when we all graduated, then we had like a little ceremony within that little group.
Elizabeth: That must have felt good. Like you felt supported in beginning to set goals and achieving them.
Tyrone: Oh yes. That felt really, really good because I was able to have some family members come to the graduation. Just to see a smile on my mom’s face. And for my brothers to see that it’s possible. They’re in high school now. At the time they were young, so they were only in middle school. I just wanted to show them that, being positive, you could get things done.
Elizabeth: So when the supports were in place, you did better. And you got back on track.
Tyrone: Yes, most definitely. Also, I got into a basketball program because I showed my mom that when you got nothing to do after school, it’s probably easy to get in trouble. I got into the Scarborough Blues basketball team and I started playing for them, training at least three days a week. We usually had a tournament every week. So that gave me four days of something besides school and then also looking for work.
So I was just very busy. I was always trying find something to do that’s going to be productive. I started exercising a lot. That was something I started to do when I was at the Roy McMurtry. I was there for a little lengthy time, so I said, I should take care of my health and get healthy.
When I was joining the basketball team, I started to switch the way I eat. I was even vegan for a little while. So it was just a good feeling to know that if you put your mind to something, you can actually get it done. You just have to stay focused and don’t get distracted.
Elizabeth: When you were talking earlier, Tyrone, you talked about the neighborhoods where you grew up. Galloway and Kingston, and Markham and Ellesmere are two neighborhoods in Scarborough where there’s not a lot of money where there weren’t a lot of resources. Do you think it would’ve made a difference in your experience if your family had access to more money or resources in terms of your experience going through the system? Or if your experience with the system would have been different if you lived in a different neighborhood? What difference does money make?
Tyrone: I would say money makes a big difference because there’s certain communities that are in the GTA that already have a history of crime for decades. When you’re growing up in this area, at first you’re young, you don’t really know what’s going on. You go to school, you play basketball, you chill out with friends, you do nicky nine doors. Everything is just all fun and games.
But then when you start to get older, you start to know the worth of money.
There’s going to be people in the community that even push stuff on you, like, “Oh, take this bag of weed. And if you bring me back a hundred dollars, you can make the next $150.” And then you start to get peer pressure.
There’s just so much crime going on. The police are frustrated that they can’t necessarily sometimes find the right suspect so they just have to blame the crime on you because you live in this neighbourhood. Basically, it’s like you get labelled as a whole. It’s like a community, everybody that lives in certain communities all around the GTA that if it already has a stigma on the neighbourhood, then it almost like falls upon you.
And it’s hard because if you could live in a gated community, or even be homeschooled, I feel like you would have a different mindset and a different lifestyle. Because you would be dealing with people that have a business mind-state and they know how to come up in the world.
So when you’re growing up in poor communities, you’re seeing a lot of things going on that is necessarily not positive and productive. It kind of sucks you in for the most part. You have to be very, very strong-minded to live in a poor community and a community with a lot of crime to not actually get involved.
Elizabeth: If you think about the first time, when you were 15, and you were detained and sent to Cobourg to Brookside, do you think it would have made a difference if your family had more financial resources, if you had access to more legal representation? Would that have made a difference, do you think?
Tyrone: Most definitely that would’ve made a difference. When you use legal aid, it’s just a government-paid lawyer. There’s so much people in the justice system using legal aid, they don’t have enough time and enough resources to get your case dealt with. Instead, if you pay a lawyer, then they’re on top of your case right away.
Something I forgot to mention: one of my friends, when I got arrested as a youth and was at the Brookside Youth Detention Centre, his mom put up $5,000 and he was bailed within three days.
He got out and within three days. The next four of us, all of us had single mothers, we weren’t able to get out for the four weeks because we were using legal aid.
Elizabeth: So, Tyrone, you’ve talked about a lot of different things. You’re at a point in your life now where you’re starting a program at a college. You’ve had some supports from the organization Amadeusz, and you got a few things beginning to happen. How hopeful are you about your future? What do you want to see happen for you?
Tyrone: I want to finish school. I want to save money. And I want to have a career. I want to help the youth. I want to even help adults that are still lost and don’t necessarily know what to do in life.
I want to just preach that you can go through things in life and you don’t have to give up. There’s support teams that can help you. There’s positive things you could do. And you can take that pain that you went through, and you can make it turn into success just off of your story and offer the things that you’ve been through because not everyone could handle and necessarily deal with the things that a lot of people deal with in poor communities.
I just want to get a career that I can help people, possibly at CAMH. That’s why I’m going to school right now for Centennial College for addictions. I want to try to help people better themselves because there’s all different types of addictions.
We need to know that we could break ourselves of that mind-state if we just try to stay focused on the positive things and just don’t lose yourself and don’t give up.
Elizabeth: That’s a great way to finish: working in the community, strengthening the community. That’s just terrific. Tyrone, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for sharing your experiences. And I think you’ve given everyone a lot to think about and to act on. So thank you.
Tyrone: No problem. Thank you, Elizabeth, for having me on the podcast.