Suit blames SCI Cresson for suicide

JOHNSTOWN – For the second time in four months, the family of an inmate who committed suicide at the now-closed State Correctional Institution at Cresson has filed a federal lawsuit blaming the death on deficient mental health care.

Renee and Darian Palakovic of Spring Hill, Tenn., say their son, Brandon, 23, hanged himself on July 17, 2012, while serving a 16 to 48 month prison sentence for a Perry County burglary.

Their son, the Palakovics stated, had mental health concerns since he was 11.

After Brandon was sentenced to serve his sentence in Cresson in June 2011, he spent considerable time in the restricted housing unit, or isolation, and that lack of care aggravated his mental health problems and led to his suicide, it is charged.

In March, Deborah Willett of Chester County filed a similar lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and its hierarchy, citing the ongoing lack of care provided to inmates suffering from mental illness.

James Willett, sentenced to seven to 14 years for rape, committed suicide on March 11, 2012.

Both lawsuits cite a study by the U.S. Department of Justice that was highly critical of mental health treatment provided to inmates at Cresson.

The majority of SCI Cresson inmates were transferred to SCI Benner near Bellefonte in Centre County when it closed.

While DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton could not comment on the Palakovic or the Willett lawsuits, she related in March that the Department of Corrections is striving to improve mental health care by working with the Vera Institute of Justice to reduce isolation used when mentally ill inmates act out, develop individual treatment plans for inmates and provide additional counseling for inmates.

The Palakovic lawsuit names 16 employees of the Department of Corrections, including DOC Secretary John Wetzel, as defendants in the civil action.

The company that provides mental health services for the department, MHM Inc., was also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

According to the lawsuit filed by three Pittsburgh attorneys, Brandon Palakovic suffered from depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, parent-child relationship problems and bipolar disorder, among others.

He was taking medication for depression while at Cresson.

The lawsuit focuses on the way the officers at Cresson “routinely” placed inmates with mental health issues in isolation.

Palakovic, it is charged, was kept alone in a small cement cell for 23 hours a day, sometimes all day, and was only permitted one hour of exercise five days a week, in an outdoor cage.

He asked for one-on-one consultation with a psychiatrist, but that was never granted.

The lawsuit charged that the mental health care at Cresson characterized as “grossly negligent, manifesting deliberate indifference” to the mental health needs of Brandon Palakovic.

The parents said other inmates called their son “suicide” because he often talked to non-existent people.

The Palakovics maintain that state officials knew of the problems with the mental health system because of the Justice Department review that included the time period between January 2012 and June 2013.

Fourteen of 17 suicide attempts at Cresson in 2011 occurred while inmates were placed in solitary confinement, the federal study found.

Mental health care at Cresson was “fragmented and ineffective,” staffing was insufficient, and the psychiatric and psychological staffs did not work together, the Palakovic lawsuit stated.

The institution’s policies encouraged the warehousing, not treatment, of the mentally ill, it contended.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.