Matthew Hamm has spent many years in prison but he’s never gotten used to solitary confinement.
Last year, while he was at the Okanagan Correctional Centre awaiting trial, he said he attempted suicide as a means to get out of segregation.
On one occasion, he said he tried to kill himself by swallowing five grams of the party drugs MDMA and MDA. Another time, he said handcuffs weren’t taken off when he was placed in solitary, so he stood atop his sink and jumped head first onto the concrete floor. He also said he used a razor blade to cut his wrists and throat.
“I hurt myself really bad,” he said. “Had to be sent to the emergency room at the hospital.”
In 2016, while serving at the Edmonton Institution, Hamm was subject to prolonged segregation – 43 days. He said he was diagnosed with PTSD because of his experiences in prison (his mother, Dale Hamm, attests the diagnosis came during his sentence in Edmonton), which are “directly related to the years I spent in solitary confinement.”
Along with two other inmates, he sued the Attorney General of Canada for $1.87 million each. And they won.
While he was serving time at the OCC last year, he was punished again with solitary confinement.
“The staff here in certain circumstances have been doing the exact same thing as was ordered to me in Edmonton,” Hamm said. “They didn’t like that I got special treatment because of my illness.”
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He said he would refuse to leave his cell if he knew he was going into solitary confinement. When this was the case, he said guards would act deceptively as a way to get him to leave.
“They tricked me by saying I was going somewhere else.”
There are “lots of good officers and lots that aren’t,” he said of the Oliver prison.
Hamm, who turns 40 next month, said he was first put in solitary confinement when he was 12 or 13 years old (in a juvenile detention centre.)
“To be honest the whole time back then as a child was even worse than it is as an adult. And I remember all of it. You don’t see stuff like that in real life, only in the darkest of places. That’s why they call it the hole.”
He argues the punishment of segregation does the opposite of rehabilitating a prisoner.
When he would try to see a doctor, he said many guards would be skeptical about the seriousness of his complaints, as a visit to the doctor can come under suspecion as a way of getting out of solitary confinement.
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“Imagine you were in your bathroom. Not a big one, just a normal sized bathroom with a tub. The tub would be your bed and the toilet would be in there and a sink. There’s a little bit of room to walk in circles, like a caged animal at the zoo. And that’s your room.”
Hamm said prisoners can listen to local radio, and they’re lucky if there’s a TV in the cell.
“You don’t leave that little bathroom. You get your meals in it.”
When he would get to see a doctor, he said directions are not properly relayed to the guards.
“For the doctor to relay this information to them and expect it to actually get passed on is naive,” he said.
Hamm feels as though many other prisoners are mistreated, but said many inmates often lack the education and resources to hold prisons to account, and also there is little sympathy for prisoners from the general public.
Last month, Hamm was released from OCC on bail. He had been there since June.
With his freedom and a seven-figure cheque both expected in the near future, Hamm wants to help other inmates in similar predicaments.
“I’ll be putting a huge portion of my settlement into allowing other inmates to do what I’ve done, to teach them what I know.”
He’s looking at setting up a toll-free number with access to attorneys, legal resources, and somebody to listen to them.
“Things that have happened to me, I’m going to make sure don’t happen to others – make sure I can provide support to the lowest of the low.”
Hamm’s account cannot be corroborated through BC Corrections because they will not comment on anything related to an inmate’s health records or status.
But in a response to a request from the Oliver Chronicle, the Ministry of Public Safety says there is a “robust screening and assessment process” for all new prisoners.
“Separate confinement is one tool that enables BC Corrections to maintain the safe operation of its centres,” reads the email. “The Correction Act Regulation guides BC Corrections’ use of segregation and separate confinement.”
However, one reason why a judge awarded Hamm a $1.87 million settlement is because the Corrections Act regulations were not followed while he was serving in Edmonton. While there, Hamm was confined to solitary for 43 days, despite the Act stating that inmates cannot be placed there for more than 30 days.
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BC Corrections also explained that within 24 hours, inmates are seen by a nurse and a mental health screener, and inmates will receive further treatment if required.
Hamm said when he last saw a psychiatrist via video screen, “I was just a number on his docket, he had no time for me.”
“Separate confinement” is permitted through the Correction Act regulation as a tool to maintain safe operations of the prison, the email reads. Solitary confinement is only used “as a last resort if they are believed to be a danger to themselves or others.”
But Hamm disagrees, saying segregation is the first resort for many guards.
BC Corrections says prisoners are given a written reason as to why the decision is made to house them in separate confinement, and they’re allowed to request a review of the decision by an independent body.
Whether or not Hamm’s criticisms are taken any further, prison reforms are likely on their way. BC Corrections began reviewing its practices involving segregation in 2016.
“As part of that review, BC Corrections has worked closely with partner agencies and stakeholders to help inform action items that support segregation reform,” reads the email from BC Corrections.
At the federal level, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced legislation (Bill C-38) last October to “eliminate the use of administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation” by authorizing “an area in a penitentiary as a structured intervention unit for the confinement of inmates who cannot be maintained in the mainstream inmate population for security or other reasons,” according to openparliament.ca.
Bill C-38, if it passes, will also oblige prison guards to “support the autonomy and clinical independence of registered health care professionals.”