Edmonton inmate who won legal battle over solitary confinement slams treatment while in prison

A former Edmonton Institution inmate is speaking out after successfully fighting for his release from more than six weeks in solitary confinement.

Matthew Hamm said inmates don’t deserve the humiliation and abuse of solitary confinement

Visits have been suspended at the institution while the lockdown is underway. (CBC)

A former Edmonton Institution inmate who successfully fought for his release from more than six weeks in solitary confinement says the experience makes "monsters" out of inmates.

Matthew Hamm says his charter rights were violated while in solitary confinement. He and two other inmates are now suing the Attorney General of Canada for $5.6 million.

Hamm was nearly finished serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery at the Edmonton Institution when he was placed in so-called administrative segregation on June 28 — an indefinite placement that does not require an initial hearing to justify it.

Hamm said he was one of six inmates who were told they'd be moved to their own unit, which turned out to be solitary confinement, or what inmates refer to as "the hole." 

According to court documents, the group was moved into segregation because it was believed the inmates planned to harm correctional officers. But Hamm, who said that claim was "ludicrous," filed a habeas corpus — a way of reporting an unlawful detention or imprisonment — against the institution.

As a result, Hamm said he felt the corrections officers retaliated against him.

He said he did nothing to deserve this treatment.

Hamm said he spent his time in segregation working on his habeas corpus, which proved challenging without being able to speak with his cellmates.

"I was able to open the window a little bit in my cell, and yell out there, and they could do the same and yell out their window and we could hear each other from the other cell blocks," he said

Inmates claim breach of charter rights

The court ruled in favour of Hamm on Aug. 8. The inmates were granted release back into the general population the day after the ruling.

By then, Hamm had served 43 days in solitary confinement, 13 days more than is permitted under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

One of the offenders had spent 822 days in solitary confinement over the past four years, with one stretch that lasted 382 days.

By any measure, "the government has not satisfied its burden of proving its decision ... was reasonable," Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joanne Veit wrote in her decision.

In a statement of claim filed in October in Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench, the men claim several breaches of their charter rights. That included that the segregation amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" that was "grossly disproportionate" and failed to comply with principles of fundamental justice.

The statement of claim contains statements not yet proven in court. It states Hamm received inadequate mental health care in segregation that caused destabilization of his mental illness.

There are some sick monsters in there. But there's also people that just made mistakes in their life and never hurt anybody. And they don't deserve some of the things that happened to them.- Matthew Hamm , former inmate

Inmate Taylor Tobin was allegedly denied access to his medications while in segregation, the document states.

Tobin and another inmate, Shawn Keepness, claimed they were denied the ability to perform their Indigenous spiritual practices while in segregation.

"By placing the plaintiffs in prolonged and indefinitely administrative segregation, the basic standards of decency owed to the plaintiffs were violated. The segregation suffered by the plaintiffs was cruel and unusual punishment," the statement said.

Hamm and the two other inmates — who are serving sentences for crimes ranging from robbery to manslaughter — are each suing the attorney general for $1,873,000. Hamm said the lawsuit is his way of speaking up for those in similar situations who may not be able to do so for themselves.

The public often sees inmates as "monsters," Hamm said, but they don't deserve the humiliation or abuse of solitary confinement.

"There are evil people in jail, but there are also people who have never physically hurt anybody in their life," he said.

"I've experienced a lot of unresolved childhood trauma, I've seen a lot of crap. I made mistakes. I did drugs, I did stupid things, but I've been clean for five years, two months. And yeah, there are some sick monsters in there. But there's also people that just made mistakes in their life and never hurt anybody. And they don't deserve some of the things that happened to them.

"I refuse to allow myself to become a product of my environment... They're creating monsters and then releasing them into the community."

'It is not a form of punishment,' CSC says

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) spokeswoman Véronique Rioux said she could not comment on the involuntary segregation of Hamm and the two other inmates. She cited privacy legislation and noted the issue is still before the courts.

A statement of defence of the Attorney General of Canada denies all claims made by the inmates, and says the habeas corpus decision doesn't apply to this case.

The statement also says the purpose of disciplinary and administrative segregation are different, and denies the inmates suffered any loss, damages or injuries alleged by the inmates.

Rioux said Canadian law and correctional policy allows the use of administrative segregation when there is no "reasonable alternative" but for the shortest period possible. The purpose of segregation is to limit risk to the inmate, staff or other inmates, she said.

"It is not a form of punishment," Rioux said in an email.

The revised 2015 Mandela Rules, which is theUnited Nations' standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, prohibit the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days. Rioux said CSC continues to examine its policy when it comes to segregation, and that it recognizes the "growing impact" of mental health needs within the offender population.

According to the CSC, inmates in segregation receive daily health care visits, daily inspections and visits by the warden, access to visitors, chaplains, elders and support workers.

"Effective and timely interventions in addressing the mental health needs of offenders is a corporate priority for us," CSC spokeswoman Lori Halfper said in an email.

But Hamm, who is now on parole, said this wasn't his experience in solitary confinement.

"Isn't CSC's mandate, their complete reason for existing, to rehabilitate inmates, to offer programs, to help people become law abiding citizens upon their release into the community?" Hamm asked. "Because that's not what they did to me."

With files from Caroline Wagner