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Mother says son’s life turned around at Saanich jail

Man makes transformation at Vancouver Island correctional centre following vicious attack on mother
Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre. (Black Press Media files)

Warning: Graphic events are described

We often hear stories of the problems found in correctional institutions – the poor treatment of inmates and dangers faced by corrections officers. But the mother of one former inmate has a very different story to tell.

Sher Wilson is a former bodybuilder and devoted mother who said that her son was reformed by the positive treatment he received during his time in Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, located on Wilkinson Road in Saanich.

A troubled life

Sher Wilson with her son Matthew before he was sentenced to Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre for aggravated assault. (Photo courtesy of Sher Wilson)

Matthew Wilson recently died while serving a two-year sentence in the correctional facility.

He led a difficult life prior to his incarceration due to involvement in gangs where he received brain injuries after severe beatings by rivals. Coupled with drug use and mental health issues, Sher said that this is what led to Matthew’s nearly fatal psychotic break that almost left her dead.

For much of his life, he was in and out of group homes and correctional facilities. “I would always take him back in when I couldn’t find care for him – he’s my son.”

She described one seemingly normal Tuesday morning while Matthew was living with her for the last time.

While on her computer writing a letter of advocacy for him at her desk, he knocked on the bedroom door and asked if he could come in. They planned a nice day together at the beach with coffees and treats. He said he was off to take a shower, pausing at the door on his way out.

‘I love you mom, thank you for letting me live with you again.’

It was the last thing he said to her.

Sher returned to her writing and could hear him rummaging in the laundry room closet where she presumed he was grabbing a clean towel.

Matthew silently came back into the bedroom from behind her – the world went black. At first, she thought there had been an earthquake, but Matthew was striking her over the head with a claw hammer repeatedly.

“I came to and had one chance to escape because he slipped in the blood, I don’t know how I got up off that floor because my hands were disfigured but I used my core strength and got to the bathroom somehow.”

Sher locked the door and put her full body weight up against it. She managed to fight for her life and her memory is blurry after that, except that after many hours of hiding from him in her own home, police finally came to her rescue.

Matthew was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail, where at first he exhibited the same violent behaviour toward staff before making a breakthrough at Wilkinson’s mental health unit.

Matthew’s turnaround

Sharing this story is important to Sher because the empathy she saw exhibited by the staff at the correctional facility turned a once violent man into someone she described as more generous, spiritual, and thoughtful – qualities she had rarely, if ever, seen in him.

One of the pastors and two of the correctional officers were especially instrumental in bettering Matthew’s life and contributing to his ability to self-regulate, Sher said.

A correctional officer who cannot be named for privacy reasons described a time that Matthew confided in the officer, describing the immense shame he felt for the attack on his mom that brought him to Wilkinson.

The officer told Matthew to use that feeling of shame as motivation to become a better version of himself.

“Matthew thought about this for a second and then thanked me for our talk. I look back on this and hope it had an impact on him… although we may not be able to reach everyone, if we can help one person foster positive change then our efforts have not been an exercise in futility,” the officer said.

Correctional practices and offerings

A belief that people can change is a core principle for the man who oversees operations at the Wilkinson Road facility.

“Over 60 per cent of B.C. Corrections’ in-custody population have been diagnosed with having mental health or substance use needs, approximately 42 per cent are diagnosed with both,” according to a statement from Richard Singleton, warden at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

Singleton said that they’re committed to focusing on meeting the individual needs of those in their care. “This starts at intake, by ensuring individuals receive early assessments that guide appropriate treatment responses, supports, and programming while in custody.”

Individuals with behavioural or mental health needs are placed in environments where they’re supported by correctional staff who have received tailored, informed training.

Through intensive case management, correctional staff assists individuals in learning to manage anger, solve problems and gain life skills.

The correctional centre also has chaplains, Indigenous liaisons, and other spiritual and cultural leaders.

A heartbreaking, yet inspiring ending

Sher was in hiding after the nearly fatal incident but described the long letters Matthew began writing to her.

He would go into detail about the job he was able to keep for the first time in his life while in prison, finding his faith through spiritual counseling, and his gratitude towards his mom for loving him and working to forgive him despite the terrible things he had done to her.

Since Matthew’s death, Sher has been grieving and working through PTSD in therapy.

She emphasized how important it is for society to place a focus on mental health care as it is the only way to help troubled individuals find a way forward in their lives.

“They transformed him, and I am forever proud of him.”