Family filing suit over son’s suicide while isolated in SCI Cresson

‘His life shouldn’t have ended this way’

aula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Brandon Palakovic was witty and personable. He was smart, didn’t like to complain and made people laugh.

But, he also had trouble following rules — even from a young age.

“He just couldn’t function in society as most people could,” said his mother, Renee Palakovic. “He could never understand consequences and boundaries. He never thought they applied to him. He couldn’t look forward. He just would do it for the moment.”

By age 11, Brandon had been diagnosed as having oppositional defiant disorder, which is characterized by argumentative or defiant behavior lasting more than six months. He was institutionalized for about a year, while his parents sought help from whatever agency they could.

For the next four years, Brandon went to a variety of military boot camps and juvenile detention facilities to no avail.

By age 15, he was charged with sexual harassment for smacking a girl on the buttocks. That was followed, his mother said, by minor burglaries, stealing the family car only to crash it into a naval yard and robbing a store.

Before he was 22 years old, Brandon had already spent a year in the Perry County jail and nearly 18 months in federal prison and was serving a state sentence of three to five years for robbery.

“Don’t ever think I’m saying he was an angel,” said Mrs. Palakovic, who has a master’s degree and worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Education for 24 years. “He did things that earned him that stay.”

But, what happened to her son at State Correctional Institution Cresson — where Brandon was forced to spend weeks at a time in solitary confinement — she continued, is appalling.

“He was trapped, and there was nothing he could do to get out of it,” she said from her home now in Spring Hill, Tenn. “It was horrible. I wouldn’t treat an animal like that.”

The prison, in Cambria County, was closed in June 2013, not long after the release of a Department of Justice report that was critical of Cresson and particularly the treatment of mentally ill inmates there.

In early July 2012, when speaking with a psychiatric staff member at the prison, Brandon “requested and felt he could benefit from ‘one to one counseling,’ ” according to a Justice Department report.

“For him to know, ‘I need help,’ that was huge for him,” Mrs. Palakovic said. “The fact he asked for it, and they ignored him, that’s unforgiveable.”

On July 16, 2012, Brandon was found hanging in his cell in the Restricted Housing Unit at the prison.

He died the next day at what is now UPMC Altoona.

He was 23, and one of three men who committed suicide at the prison between 2010 and 2012.

Across the state Department of Corrections since 2010, there have been 38 suicides. According to a follow-up Justice Department report reviewing the state prison system as a whole, more than 70 percent of all Pennsylvania prison suicides between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 31, 2013, occurred in solitary confinement.

The report, published in May 2013, found that Cresson’s use of “long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness, many of whom also have intellectual disabilities, violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

On Tuesday, Brandon’s parents filed a federal lawsuit alleging systemic violations of their son’s constitutional rights, including discrimination, deliberate indifference to the deprivation of basic human rights, deliberate indifference to his medical needs and wrongful death.

Named as defendants are Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, as well as several members of Cresson’s staff, including the chief psychologist, head of psychiatric services and unit heads.

“The level of mental health care provided to Brandon was grossly deficient, manifesting a deliberate indifference to his serious medical need for mental health care,” the complaint said.

A spokeswoman for the DOC said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Mrs. Palakovic said her reasons for filing the complaint are simple.

” I want them to admit to wrongdoing with my son. They were so cold and callous,” she said. “They could honestly have cared less about him and about us.

“His life shouldn’t have ended this way, and we want to make sure others aren’t in the same situation. They have to deal with prisoners who have special needs properly. They can’t just throw them in cages and pretend they’re not sick.”

The Restricted Housing Unit

Although Brandon received several diagnoses as a child, his mother said, as an adult it was never so clear-cut. Instead, doctors settled on “unspecified personality disorder.”

Still, Brandon was never medicated until he got to Cresson, where the young man was prescribed Celexa, an anti-depressant.

“They told him he needed it because he wasn’t compliant,” she said. “It was simply, ‘you’re easier to manage.’ ”

Mrs. Palakovic said her son hated how the medicine made him feel — bad, foggy.

“He would get into battles with staff about taking it.”

Those battles would lead to Brandon being moved from general population, where he had some freedoms and perks, to the Restricted Housing Unit, where he was locked in a one-man cell for 30 days at a time.

“Whenever I would lose contact with him, I knew he was in RHU,” Mrs. Palakovic said. “The only way he could get out was if he would comply.

“Really, that was his life — a constant back and forth from RHU.”

Friends and fellow inmates of Brandon, who wrote to the Palakovic family after his death, said they tried to get Brandon to follow the rules.

Sometimes he listened.

“I can’t speak for all the ‘old heads,’ but as for me, I try my best to keep the kids out of trouble,” wrote one older inmate. “Brandon had been back and forth in the hole recently. I had talked to him about messing up his parole and things like that. He told me that my advice ‘made a lot of sense.’ Unfortunately, he didn’t always heed my warnings or advice.”

Mrs. Palakovic recognizes her son may have been difficult to deal with in prison.

Brandon didn’t like to follow arbitrary rules — like turning out the lights at a certain time, or turning off the TV.

“It was just simple compliance,” she said. “I tried to talk to him and tell him, ‘you have to listen. You have to do what you’re told.’ ”

But aside from talking to him, Mrs. Palakovic said, there was nothing more she could do for her son.

“He was on his own. I couldn’t intercede.”

She would sometimes go for weeks at a time with no word from Brandon, and then eventually, he would call.

“He would laugh and say he’d gone dark,” she said. “He didn’t cry or whine about it. He didn’t want people to know how bad it affected him.”

So, Brandon would stick it out in the RHU until he could no longer take the isolation, and then he would acquiesce to the will of the staff and take his meds.

“That was the whole year — back and forth,” she said.

In the spring of 2012, Mrs. Palakovic told Brandon their family was moving to Tennessee, and she said he seemed genuinely happy.

“I think he was trying more to be compliant with the meds,” she said. “He seemed like he was trying a little harder.”

In mid-June, Brandon sent a letter in which he expressed how happy he was about the move.

And then he dropped out of contact.

“We assumed he was back in RHU,” Mrs. Palakovic said. “We did not talk to him again.”

‘Very callous people’

Early in the morning of July 17, 2012, she received a phone call that Brandon had been taken to the hospital in Altoona and that he was critically ill.

As the family was walking out the door three hours later to catch their flight to visit him, they learned he had died.

“We didn’t make it in time,” Mrs. Palakovic said.

They flew up anyway, and she remembers sitting in the parking lot at the hospital, calling Cresson to try to get information about what happened to Brandon.

“The man who answered, he didn’t put me on hold, he must have just set the phone down, and I heard him say, ‘I got the mom of the one who hung himself up on the line. What do you want me to do?’

“They were just very callous people,” she said. “I was appalled.

“My impressions of the staff are that they felt they were above these people. They’re in charge of their care. They saw themselves as better than them. They got some kind of sick, twisted joy out of it. They got entertainment.”

One inmate, who wrote to the Palakovic family two weeks after Brandon’s death, said Cresson’s staff mishandled the young man.

“[T]he ones you can hold accountable is the mental health department,” the fellow inmate wrote. “This prison is under a big investigation right now for their lack of care to the mentally ill, hence your son’s nickname, ‘Suicide.’ He has an extreme history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Hence, the mental health department is the one who failed your son.”

Mrs. Palakovic never knew how bad it was for Brandon. She never knew he had any problems with depression, and before that letter never knew his nickname at the prison was “Suicide.”

“He never ever spoke of hurting himself,” she said. “He never ever said that.”

In fact, two days after her son’s funeral, Mrs. Palakovic received a letter from him — mostly upbeat — written the day before he hanged himself.

In it, the young man said how much he missed his family.

“Hi, mom. Hope everything is going good for you, dad and the kids. I miss them terribly. I know you probably think that’s BS because of the way I used to treat them, but believe me, when I sit here and look at all you guys’ pictures, I get really lonely and depressed,” he wrote. “I know we’re not supposed to live with regrets, but every day I relive some of the most worst things I’ve done and wish I could correct them.”

In the next part of the letter, Brandon told his mom that he had been the one to request his most recent stay in RHU after a friend of his inside the prison killed someone.

He said he was being targeted by the victim’s friends.

“Anyways, I’m fine, and you know me, I’m a fighter at heart; it’s just when I seen some of the weapons come out, I said, ‘screw it, I’m not fighting this time,’ ” Brandon wrote.

And just as quickly he transitioned into, “So that’s what’s new with me. How about you guys? How’s the new house? How are you liking Tennessee?”

He asked his mother to send books to him. He told her how much he was enjoying the copy of the official X-Box magazine she’d sent to him — and that he’d sent the magazine a letter to the editor.

Mrs. Palakovic wonders how her son could have gone from the future-looking tone in the letter to hanging himself just hours later.

She did some research into Celexa and learned, like many depressants, it was not recommended for young people because of the possible increase in suicidal thoughts.

“It’s not a good one for teens or young adults,” she said. “However, it is the cheapest. Obviously, that’s why they did it. It was cheap, and it kept him under control.”

When the family first consulted a lawyer about filing a potential lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections regarding Brandon’s treatment, they were advised against it.

“He said, ‘It’s a large bureaucratic agency, and they have unlimited resources, and you won’t win,’ ” the first lawyer told them. “He advised us to let it go.

“We were devastated.”

But then they were contacted by Bret Grote, whom they’d previously dealt with through the Human Rights Coalition.

Over those ensuing months, Mr. Grote, a prisoners’ rights advocate, had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. He kept returning to Brandon’s case and wondered if the Palakovics had found anyone to represent them.

“We were shocked, because we’d talked to so many other attorneys,” Mrs. Palakovic said. “There was no discussion. It was pretty much an immediate, ‘no.’ When he indicated he could do this and he had people interested in partnering with him, it was such a relief. We were elated.”

For the Palakovics, Mr. Grote said, there is one goal: “They don’t want other people to go through the pain and the loss that they have. If Brandon’s story in this lawsuit can hit home the life and death consequences of this issue, and contribute to publicizing the serious human rights violations that go on in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, then that is their ultimate intention.”

Despite many attempts by Brandon’s parents to obtain his medical records from Cresson, the Corrections Department has refused to turn any of them over.

The prison did, however, send Mrs. Palakovic the items her son had in his cell.

“I haven’t ever gotten through it all,” she said. “It’s kind of hard.”

After Brandon died, Mrs. Palakovic said, she was angry at her son.

“It was hard to forgive him,” she said. “I wish he would have thought how this would affect his family.”

The family includes Brandon’s younger brother, Corey, who is 16, and sister, Madison, 14.

After reading the DOJ report and learning about the investigation, Mrs. Palakovic has shifted some of the blame there. Still she feels there’s no one being held accountable.

“They’ve been shuffled around. They moved.”

Mrs. Palakovic called it “convenient” that Cresson closed a month after the DOJ report was issued, but that the staff just was reassigned to different prisons.

“The building didn’t do it. The building didn’t allow my son to hang himself. They did.”

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.