Palakovic v. Wetzel – Seeking Accountability in the War on Prisoners
Palakovic v. Wetzel is a lawsuit in the Western District of Pennsylvania brought on behalf of the late Brandon Palakovic by his parents Renee and Darian. The suit claims that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) Secretary John Wetzel and other officials in charge of the now-defunct State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson “created and sustained conditions of solitary confinement that subjected Brandon Palakovic to torture, causing him to take his own life on July 17, 2012, at the age of 23. Defendants transformed [Brandon’s] 16-48 month term of imprisonment into a death sentence.”
The case sheds light on the life-and-death consequences of solitary confinement, seeking accountability for illegal conditions of confinement that are increasingly recognized as torture.
“Brandon is finally at peace and can no longer be drugged, locked up and ignored, but we know there are others that are still enduring similar nightmares. We hope and pray that somehow, someway Brandon’s death can bring attention to these serious issues within Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutions and save other prisoners and their families from this same pain.”
Read the full statement HERE.
SCI Cresson was under investigation by the DOJ at the time of Brandon’s suicide for holding prisoners with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health treatment. The DOJ found that SCI Cresson’s use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill and intellectually disabled constituted cruel and unusual punishment and unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DOJ report stated:
The unconstitutional use of prolonged and extreme isolation on prisoners with serious mental illness . . . has come about because of systemic deficiencies relating to Cresson’s mental health care program. Instead of having systems in place to ensure it is providing adequate mental health care throughout the Facility, Cresson uses isolation to control and warehouse prisoners with mental illness as they become more ill and less stable.
According to a report issued by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), “despite a history of self-harm and suicide attempts, [Brandon] continued to be placed in isolation, eventually leading to his death.”
The DOJ expanded its investigation to include the entirety of the PADOC. In February of 2014, the DOJ found that the entire PADOC was in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act for its use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill and intellectually disabled.
Approximately 50% of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement units. At SCI Cresson, 2 of 3 suicides occurring in 2011 and 2012 occurred in solitary confinement, and the third suicide involved a prisoner who had allegedly spent considerable time in solitary confinement prior to his death. In 2011, 14 of the 17 documented suicide attempts at SCI Cresson occurred in the solitary confinement units. The DOJ also reported that “[SCI] Cresson’s records show that in 2011, there were dozens of incidents involving prisoners on the mental health roster engaging in self-harm in the isolation units, while just two such incidents occurred in the general population.”
There have already been 5 confirmed suicides in the PADOC in 2014 according to official data. At least three, and possibly all five, of the suicides involved prisoners in solitary confinement.
The Palakovics are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Mike Healey of the firm Healey and Hornack, and Jules Lobel, who is of counsel to Healey and Hornack.