Parents sue state prisons over son’s suicide

PITTSBURGH – The parents of an inmate who hanged himself in a central Pennsylvania prison have sued the Department of Corrections for allegedly misusing solitary confinement to deal with mentally ill inmates.

Brandon Palakovic, 23, killed himself in July 2012 at the State Correctional Institution-Cresson, about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was one of two older prisons closed last year so inmates could be moved to newer facilities.

Before that happened, a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation found solitary confinement was being overused on inmates with mental or intellectual disabilities.

“We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution,” Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement in May 2013.

Those findings led the Justice Department to conduct a wider review of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons, the results of which were announced in February.

The Justice Department determined more than 1,000 prisoners with mental health problems had been in solitary confinement for at least three months, and nearly 250 for a year or more. At the time, state corrections officials said only 115 of its 50,000 inmates had severe mental illness or intellectual disabilities, but the Justice Department concluded state officials were underreporting those figures.

Renee and Darian Palakovic, who now live in Spring Hill, Tennessee, cite the Justice Department findings in their 25-page federal lawsuit filed late Tuesday.

The couple contend said their son was serving a 16- to 48-month sentence for burglary after a conviction in Perry County when he hanged himself four days after being placed in solitary confinement for an unspecified “minor rules violation.”

Palakovic had been institutionalized for mental health problems four times since he was 11. Among other disorders, Palakovic had been diagnosed as bipolar and having a learning disability, and was being given an antidepressant whose side effects included “suicidal thoughts or impulses,” the lawsuit said.

The Palakovics also said the mental health care their son received was “grossly deficient,” in that he was visited by psychological staff in December 2011, May 2012 and on July 5, 2012 – 11 days before his suicide.

The couple also contends their son had “spent multiple 30-day stints in solitary confinement” and was repeatedly placed there “without any objective assessment of whether he posed a security risk to other prisoners or staff.”

Shortly before his death, “Prisoners reported that Brandon had started talking to non-existent people and that other prisoners had given him the nickname ‘suicide,'” the lawsuit said.

“Defendants transformed a 16-48 month term of imprisonment into a death sentence,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit names corrections Secretary John Wetzel, the prison’s superintendent, and several others, including six unnamed guards.

A corrections spokeswoman said Wednesday the department doesn’t comment on litigation, but referred to a February news release responding to the Justice Department findings. Among other things, the state has enacted reforms to reduce the use of solitary confinement for seriously mental ill inmates.