Court reinstates lawsuit over inmate’s suicide

Parents say son was subject to inhumane conditions at SCI Cresson

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit brought by the parents of a 23-year-old man who committed suicide nearly five years ago at the now-closed State Correctional Institution at Cresson.

D. Brooks Smith, chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote a 54-page opinion issued Friday ordering that a civil lawsuit brought by Renee and Darian Palakovic, the parents of deceased inmate Brandon Palakovic of Perry County, could move forward in the U.S. federal court in Johnstown.

District Judge Kim R. Gibson had twice dismissed the Palakovics’ legal action in which they contend their son was subject to inhumane conditions during his 13 months at SCI Cresson.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, noted that Brandon Palakovic had a history of mental strife, that he had attempted suicide on prior occasions and that he requested mental health treatment while in prison but his requests were ignored.

Instead he was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement for 30-day periods, limiting his activities to a “tiny” prison cell, where he had little contact with other human beings.

Referring to a recent 3rd Circuit opinion, Smith 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.”

Gibson twice ruled that the lawsuit did not provide enough facts to warrant further litigation.

The parents through their attorneys, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center and Michael J. Healy of Pittsburgh, appealed to the 3rd Circuit.

Smith was joined by Judges Kent A. Jordan and Patty Shwartz in overturning Gibson’s rulings.

In the lawsuit, the parents are challenging the overall treatment their son received while in the state prison system, the alleged inadequate mental health care provided by the Department of Corrections at that time and the failure to properly train prison employees to recognize symptoms of mental illness.

Palakovic was one of two suicides that occurred during a time when the U.S. Department of Justice was preparing a report on possible abuse of inmates with mental health problems within the entire state system.

Cresson inmate James Willett, 24, hanged himself just months before the Palakovic suicide. A lawsuit brought by his relatives was settled out of court.

Smith, in the 3rd Circuit opinion, noted that prison officials were aware of effects of solitary confinement.

He said 14 of 17 suicide attempts by inmates at the prison during the prior year had occurred while they were in solitary confinement.

Amy Worden, the DOC press secretary, said Tuesday there have been substantial changes in the treatment of inmates with mental health problems since the two lawsuits were filed.

The state now houses offenders with serious mental health issues and those with intellectual disabilities in specialized treatment units.

Inmates with issues have 20 hours per week of out-of-cell time for activities and treatment, and the classification system has been expanded to include all inmates with a current or past diagnosis of mental health problems, which protects them from less restrictive housing.

Treatment has been intensified for inmates who suffer from the most severe forms of mental illness, and training for staff has been enhanced to include crisis intervention and mental health first aid.

She listed many additional programs underway to improve treatment for inmates with mental health issues.

Palakovic was in the state system on a 16- to 48-month sentence for burglary.

According to the parents’ lawsuit, he told classification officials at SCI Camp Hill that he had previously attempted suicide and that he sometimes had thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

He was early on identified as a “suicide behavior risk” and was placed on the DOC’s “prison mental health roster.”

When he was transferred to Cresson, he exhibited signs of depression and stated a “wish to die.”

The 3rd Circuit opinion reported his nickname in the prison system was “Suicide.”

Despite these factors, he received no psychological counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, group therapy or interviews with therapists in a clinical setting, it was pointed out.

The Palakovic case has now been sent back to the federal district court where the next step will be “discovery,” a process that will help both sides clarify the facts that led to the July 26, 2012, suicide.