Parents lodge prison complaint

Palakovics blame son’s suicide on prison’s failure to treat mental illness

By Phil Ray

For the Mirror

The parents of a 23-year-old man who died by suicide while in the former State Correctional Institution at Cresson once again have filed a lawsuit against Department of Corrections officials, contending their son died because the state prison system focused on punishment rather than treatment of those inmates who suffered from mental illness.

This is the third civil complaint filed by Renee and Darian Palakovic of Spring Hill, Tenn., whose son, Brandon, was serving a 16- to 48-month sentence for a burglary in Perry County.

Brandon Palakovic entered the prison in April 2011 and during the next 15 months was repeatedly placed in the prison’s restricted housing unit, or solitary confinement, for nonviolent and minor offenses despite ample evidence that he was depressed and suicidal, the lawsuit contends.

He committed suicide while serving 90 days in the restricted housing unit.

While the Palakovics are suing on behalf of their deceased son, their lawsuit also is critical not only of the handling of inmates experiencing mental illness at the now closed Cresson SCI but of the way the Department of Corrections treated the mentally ill throughout its system.

The lawsuit, filed by Bret D. Grote of Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh and attorneys Mike Healy of Pittsburgh and David Rudosky of Philadelphia, stated DOC officials “created and sustained conditions of solitary confinement in the RHU that subjected Brandon Palakovic to torture, causing him to take his own life on July 17, 2012, at the age of 23. Defendants thereby transformed a 16- to 48-month term of imprisonment into a death sentence.”

The defendants in the lawsuit include DOC Secretary John Wetzel, former Cresson SCI Superintendent Kenneth Cameron, two other state prison officials as well as two psychologists and a psychiatrist who were employed by MHM Inc., the company that provides mental health services for the state prison system.

The DOC on Friday filed its answer to the lawsuit denying that it acted with “deliberate indifference” toward Brandon Palakovic’s severe mental health problems that, the lawsuit contends, were well-known throughout the correctional facility — to the point that Brandon’s nickname was “Suicide.”

During the time period in which Palakovic and another inmate in the Cresson RHU committed suicide, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the way inmates with mental health problems were treated in the state system, and the DOJ concluded “serious mental illness was ‘punished rather than treated at SCI Cresson.'”

It also found these inmates were sometimes deprived of “mattresses, warm food, reading materials, out-of-cell time, showers, phone calls and visits.”

The federal report said officers and staff were “frequently hostile and cruel toward prisoners.”

It added there was a “systemwide failure of security staff to consider mental health issues appropriately and a marginalization of concerns of the mental health staff.”

It listed six other findings.

In the state’s reply filed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Senior Deputy AG Scott A. Bradley and Chief Deputy AG Kenneth L. Noel, it admitted the Department of Justice made such findings but noted, “By way of further answer, the DOC takes issue with many of the conclusions reached in the DOJ report.”

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown has twice dismissed the Palakovics’ lawsuit since it was initially filed on July 8, 2014, but in both instances the lawsuit was reinstated by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

In April, the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, D. Brooks Smith, authored a 54-page opinion in which he stated, “We (the court) observed a growing consensus — with roots dating back a century — that conditions like those to which Brandon repeatedly was subjected can cause severe and traumatic psychological damage, including anxiety, panic, paranoia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis and even a disintegration of the basic sense of self-identity.”

The chief judge pointed out that DOJ report found that 14 of 17 suicide attempts by inmates at the prison the prior year had occurred while they were in the restricted housing unit.

In 2015, the Department of Corrections and the Disability Rights Network vowed to work together to overhaul the handling of inmates with mental health issues — about one out of every four inmates, according to Wetzel.

Since the federal report, the state has created treatment units for inmates suffering from mental health and intellectual disability issues as opposed to the use of confinement and discipline.

In April 2016, the DOJ closed its investigation into the treatment of mentally ill inmates citing Pennsyl-vania’s progress in addressing those issues.