Statement from the Palakovic Family

Statement from the Palakovic Family

Nearly two years ago now, our son, Brandon Michael Palakovic, was pronounced dead in a hospital in Altoona after hanging himself with his bed sheet while in solitary confinement (RHU) at Cresson State Correctional Institution. His last moments on earth were of such torment and misery that he felt the only escape was death. As his parents, we have found it hard to conceive of death being his only way out. So we have spent the last two years trying to heal, understand his final decision and memorialize Brandon for the person that he was, not the animal that we have come to find out he was treated like.

Brandon was so much more than what the Cresson SCI guards, therapists, psychiatrists and staff reduced him to. He was funny, vibrant, handsome, intelligent and loving. He was not perfect. He made bad decisions and was paying his debt by serving out the sentence handed down to him. But, while serving his sentence, he needed and deserved proper mental health care for his long-standing, well-documented mental health issues so he could be the person that his family and friends knew him to be.

We hear and read stories practically every day about the need for changes in the mental health care system in the United States and how treatment must be comprehensive, ongoing and closely monitored and that as a society, we cannot ignore this reality. These articles, stories and reports are written by health care professionals with the same licenses, degrees and ethical responsibilities as the therapists and psychiatrists working at Cresson SCI.   So, then how is it that our son and others behind these prison walls were and are somehow different from the rest of the country?   Why did the doctors charged with taking care of Brandon’s mental health care needs feel it unnecessary to monitor his medications and provide regular check-ins or therapy?   They ignored his needs. His only therapy was more time in solitary confinement and more medication. He was taunted and left with no hope and no choice.

Brandon’s death has left a hole in our family and our hearts that can never be filled. We have lost our beloved son. Our son and daughter have lost their big brother. Our parents have lost their first grandson. Our family has lost a nephew, a cousin, a great grandson, a Godson and a future uncle. The loss we have sustained simply cannot be properly expressed in words, but is felt deeply and painfully every day.

The system that we have respected all of our lives and taught our children to respect failed Brandon and feels no remorse for their actions. Instead, they have been cold, non-responsive, rude and evasive at every turn. The evening that we had to identify Brandon’s body was the single worst moment of our lives. When there was confusion at the hospital as we arrived, we had to make a call to Cresson so they could release his body to us. When I identified myself as Brandon’s mother, the guard simply yelled to another person “It’s the mom of the one who hung up last night. What do you want me to do with her?” They clearly didn’t see Brandon as a person. They saw him as a thing; trash that could just be disposed of without a second thought and his death meant nothing to them.

After two years, his decision to end his life still haunts us, and probably always will, but we can at least begin to understand his despair a bit better. Why did Brandon think this was his only option? Cresson SCI provided him with no other options; only more medications that made him suicidal and sick and tormented his thoughts. Why didn’t Brandon ever reach out for help? He did ask for help on numerous occasions. Cresson SCI ignored his requests for help and determined that solitary confinement would be the only help he would get.

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.

Renee and Darian Palakovic

July 6, 2014

Institutionalized Cruelty: The Use of Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania Prisons (Video)

Institutionalized Cruelty, a film by James Tedrow, discusses the abuse of solitary confinement in the Pennsylvania prison system, as documented by Human Rights Coalition investigations. The film includes video of the cell extraction of Carrington Keyes, a member of the Dallas 6, as well as discussing the death of John Carter during a cell extraction, and the decades long solitary confinement of Russell Maroon Shoatz and Arthur Cetewayo Johnson. Persons interviewed include ALC board members Shandre Delaney, Bret Grote, and Dustin McDaniel.

Federal court rules litigation can proceed in Shoatz v. Wetzel

MEDIA RELEASE: Federal court rules litigation can proceed in Shoatz v. Wetzel

Defendants’ motion to dismiss denied on all counts

January 27, 2014: Pittsburgh PA —  On Monday, January 27, United States District Magistrate for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Cynthia Reed Eddy, issued a decision denying defendants’ motion to dismiss in the case of Shoatz v. Wetzel. The ruling allows Russell Maroon Shoatz to move forward with the legal challenge to his more than 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement.

Shoatz brought suit in May 2013 on the grounds that he has been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that prison officials have deprived him of his procedural and substantive due process rights for keeping him in solitary confinement without meaningful review and on insufficient grounds.

Quoting the federal court ruling in the case of Wilkerson v. Stalder (aka the Angola 3 case), Judge Eddy observed that “[a]ny person in the United States who reads or watches television should be aware that lack of adequate exercise, sleep, social isolation, and lack of environmental stimulation are seriously detrimental to a human being’s physical and mental health.” She found that “The duration of Plaintiff’s solitary confinement has continued for a sufficient length of time that relief on his Eighth Amendment claim is plausible.”

The court also held that Shoatz stated a plausible claim that his right to procedural due process was violated by insufficient notice of when he is reviewed, the actual reasons for his continued solitary confinement, and what he must do in order to be released to the general population.

Finally, the court held that Shoatz stated a plausible claim that his substantive due process rights were being violated by conduct that – if proven – would “shock the contemporary conscience.” Here Shoatz alleged that continuing to hold him in solitary confinement on the irrational basis that he is an escape risk, despite being a 70-year-old man with an array of medical issues,  demonstrated a deliberate indifference to his due process rights which was conscience-shocking.

The decision comes approximately two weeks after Shoatz was transferred for the third time in 9 months – this time to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford in southeastern Pennsylvania. Prior to the transfer, Shoatz had successfully completed a 60-day step-down program at SCI Frackville. Although Shoatz has been given reassurances he will be placed in the general population soon, he currently remains in solitary confinement.

The campaign to release Shoatz from solitary confinement has been gathering increasing international attention, including the support of five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Jody Williams from the United States, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina. Several U.S. civil and human rights organizations have already endorsed his release from isolation, as have a growing number of clergy.

In March 2013, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, Juan Mendez, called on the government “to cease the prolonged isolation of Mr. Shoat[z].” (see Democracy Now! interview with Juan Mendez discussing Maroon at this link).

Shoatz is represented by Reed Smith attorneys Rick Etter and Stefanie L. Burt; Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center; Daniel Kovalik of the United Steelworkers; and retired partner from Reed Smith, Hal Engel.

Shoatz v. Wetzel – Denial of Motion to Dismiss

Contact:             Bret Grote                           412-654-9070


Action Alert – Demand an end to Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson’s 34 years in solitary confinement

 Call and write PA DOC Secretary Wetzel today: 717-728-4109; 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050

 Cetewayo – A case of 34 years in the hole

 Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson is a politicized prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) since 1979.

Despite his exemplary disciplinary record of the past 25 years, and his recently turning 61 years old, Cetewayo continues to be subjected to 23-24-hour lockdown in solitary confinement with its attendant austerity, monotony, and deprivations. He has not had human contact with anybody except prison guards in over 30 years.

This is far and away one of the worst cases of state torture in this country – and that is saying something. Decades of social isolation and sensory deprivation is unfathomable, unconstitutional, and in violation of international human rights standards.

On October 3, 2013, Cetewayo had his annual review hearing at SCI Frackville, where officials assess whether to continue his solitary confinement. The final decision will be made by Secretary John Wetzel, so we are asking people to contact his office TODAY and demand an end to the torture.

Call/Write to: PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel, 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050; Phone number: 717-728-4109; Fax: 717-728-4178

Additional background and Talking Points for Action Alert:

Convicted of homicide and sentenced to life without parole in 1971 when he was 18 years old, Cetewayo soon developed a close relationship with imprisoned members of the Black Liberation Movement. As happened to so many of his generation who took up the struggle for human rights, Cetewayo became a target for severe state repression.

Cetewayo was accused of being involved in nine attempted escapes from 1977 to 1987, although several of these were likely fabrications engineered by prison officials. Cetewayo never got off prison grounds or escaped custody during any of these alleged attempts.

After these escape attempts his disciplinary record has been exemplary, receiving less than a handful of misconducts for minor rule violations in the last quarter-century. There have been no allegations of – or actual – escape attempts since 1987.

Human rights begin at home. Cetewayo’s case represents a challenge to human rights activists that is long overdue. Ending the torture and repression of political and politicized prisoners is a core part of rebuilding a mass human rights movement within the U.S.

Support the call to release Cetewayo from solitary confinement!

Talking Points

1)   Use his government name (Arthur Johnson) and prison ID #AF3457.

2)   Arthur Johnson has been a model prisoner for a quarter-century, receiving only minor misconducts during this time.

3)   There is no justification for such prolonged solitary confinement. It violates international human rights standards, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is increasingly recognized as torture.

4)   Solitary confinement is not necessary to prevent escapes, which are extremely rare in the PA DOC anyway.

5)   Many prisoners have been successfully transitioned from long-term solitary confinement without incident, and older prisoners are far less likely to present disciplinary problems.

6)   Even if SCI Frackville does not recommend Johnson for release to the general population, Secretary Wetzel has an obligation to overrule the institution and to respect Johnson’s constitutional and human rights.


Thirty-four consecutive years in solitary is more than long enough!

DEMAND that Cetewayo be placed in general population IMMEDIATELY!

Call/Write to: PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel, 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050; Phone number: 717-728-4109; Fax: 717-728-4178

The U.S.’s 64-Square-Foot “Torture Chambers”

By Pam Johnson

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2013 (IPS) – He has not had human contact or a good night’s sleep in nearly three decades. Every single day, he wakes to the sound of metal doors clanging open and a pair of disembodied hands pushing a tray of food through a slot into his 64-square-foot cell.

For the next 23 hours, he will stare at the same four walls. If he is lucky, he’ll be escorted, shackled at his ankles and wrists, into a “yard” – an enclosure only slightly larger than his cell – for an hour of solitary exercise.

This is how Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a prisoner in the restricted housing unit at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) Frackville in northern Pennsylvania, has spent the past 22 consecutive years.

On Thursday, Shoatz’s lawyers submitted a communication to Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, urging him to inquire into why a “father, grandfather and great grandfather” is being held in extreme isolation despite having a near-perfect disciplinary record for over 20 years.

Read the rest here

Lawyers for Russell Maroon Shoatz submit request to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

October 17, 2013: Pittsburgh PA — Lawyers for Russell Maroon Shoatz submitted a Communication to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – Fall 2013, Juan Mendez, requesting that he inquire into Shoatz’s nearly 30 years of solitary confinement within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC). Shoatz is a 70-year-old, former Black Panther Party member who has been locked in solitary confinement at various state prisons for the past 22 consecutive years, and 28 of the past 30 years.

The request comes at a time when the campaign to release Shoatz from solitary confinement has been gathering increasing international attention. In August, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa marked the occasion of Maroon’s 70th birthday by sending a letter to PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel that read: “We also affirm, in the strongest possible humanitarian terms, that now is the time for the immediate and unconditional release from solitary confinement and restricted housing of Russell Maroon Shoatz. After decades of solitary confinement – including the past 22 consecutive years – there is no reason for further delay. Continued confinement in 23-hour-a-day isolation is nothing short of torture.”

For the last 23 years, Shoatz has had an impeccable disciplinary record, and has not received on serious rule violation during this time. Despite his model behavior, advancing years, and health problems, the PA DOC has refused to release this father, grandfather, great-grandfather, human rights advocate, and published author into the general prison population.

“The Special Rapporteur on Torture has recently spoken out about similar instances of extraordinary long-term solitary confinement in the United States in Pelican Bay state prison and in the case of the Angola 3. Like these cases, the solitary confinement of Russell Shoatz is yet another extreme violation of international human rights standards,” said Jules Lobel, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the attorney who submitted the document to the Special Rapporteur on Shoatz’s behalf.

Although Shoatz is still held in the solitary confinement unit, he has been permitted more out of cell time in recent weeks, as prison officials inform him that he is being assessed for release from isolation. On September 23, 2013, Shoatz began a 60-day step-down program where he is permitted out of his cell as a block worker for approximately one-hour Monday through Friday.

Although this program represents the most out-of-cell time Shoatz has been afforded since he was in federal prison in 1991, and the most in a PA DOC prison since 1983, there is no guarantee that he will eventually be released into the general population. Prison officials have stated that he will merely be considered for release after the completion of the program.

The communication to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was submitted by Jules Lobel; Dan Kovalik, Senior Associate General Counsel for the United Steelworkers; Dustin McDaniel and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; and attorney Hal Engel.

The 14-page document observes that a 2011 report issued by the Special Rapporteur provided a “legal analysis . . . that resoundingly affirms the conclusion that U.S.-style solitary confinement units are prohibited under international law.” It called on the Special Rapporteur to “immediately initiate a prompt and comprehensive investigation into the facts surrounding Russell Maroon Shoatz’s nearly 30 years of solitary confinement in the PA DOC.”

The communication concluded by recognizing that even if he is soon released from isolation, “It is vital that the egregious violations of Shoatz’s human rights are recognized by your office and the international human rights community more broadly, both for his own sake, and for the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who have been subjected to these conditions of social isolation and sensory deprivation in U.S. jails and prisons over the years.”

Five Things You Need to Know About Solitary Confinement


NEW YORK/PITTSBURGH — By Bret Grote and Kanya D’Almeida. This article was first published by Ecosocialist Horizons

Stop the average person on the street in any major city in the United States and ask them if they were aware that for 60 days this summer scores of U.S. citizens were on a sustained hunger strike; the vast majority will tell you they had no idea. Continue reading “Five Things You Need to Know About Solitary Confinement”