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Violence and Healing at Napa State Hospital: A Tale of 2 Families

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Nearly 200 Napa State Hospital workers demonstrate for safer conditions in 2010, in the wake of the killing of staff member Donna Gross at the hands of a patient. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

At California's five state psychiatric hospitals, patients are mostly criminal defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial. They've been sent to these institutions for psychiatric care. But sometimes the patients can be violent.

Five years ago this week, a staff member was murdered by a patient at Napa State Hospital. In the time since, the hospital has tried to improve safety. While the majority of patients are not violent, sometimes those who are target not just staff, but other patients as well.

Although it's rare for members of the media to gain access to the hospital, I was invited by Frank and Barbara Brackin to join them in visiting their 45-year-old son, Shawn, who has been a patient at Napa State for nearly 20 years. I met up with Shawn's parents in the parking lot.

"Sometimes he says he can't sleep when he's expecting a visit because he's so excited," Barbara Brackin tells me as we walk to the hospital's front door.


"Our main concern now is for Shawn's safety," her husband says. "He was not given the death sentence, (but) he's almost had it twice in the past three years," Frank adds, in reference to assaults Shawn has suffered at the hospital.

Shawn Brackin during junior high school in 1983.
Shawn Brackin during junior high school in 1983. (Courtesy Brackin Family)

After passing through a number of locked gates and surrendering our driver's licenses, we pass through several locked doors and then a metal detector, where we also surrender our cellphones and wallets.

At last, we're ushered into a tiny room to visit with Shawn Brackin.

"I'm glad to see you," he says, shuffling toward us with difficulty. He's wearing a blue helmet to protect his head in case he falls -- which happens somewhat frequently -- or is pushed.

Shawn wasn't always in this condition, his parents had explained to me earlier. His life took a bad turn at age 6, when he was struck by a car and had a severe head injury. That accident began a slow descent that ended in tragedy.

After graduating from high school, Shawn became increasingly depressed and withdrawn. In 1995, he took a small gun and walked into a local police station.

Frank Brackin says that was an attempt at "suicide by cop."

"He was wanting to die," Frank Brackin says. "And so he put himself before the firing squad, and he had no idea the firing squad would turn on themselves."

On that day, when he was 25 years old, Shawn was shot by police but survived. In the mayhem, an officer shot and killed another cop.

Shawn Brackin was charged with six felonies. As part of a plea deal, he was found "not guilty by reason of insanity." And that plea -- with its diagnosis of mental illness -- is what led him to Napa State Hospital.

"We had no choice, really," Shawn's father says. "We wanted to protect him and make sure he had a safe environment. We thought a hospital would be a safe environment."

Napa State Hospital patient Shawn Brackin spent 17 days in the ICU at UC San Francisco Medical Center after being severely beaten by a fellow patient in 2014.
Napa State Hospital patient Shawn Brackin spent 17 days in the ICU at UCSF Medical Center after being severely beaten by a fellow patient in 2014. (Courtesy Brackin Family)

But over the years, Shawn Brackin has been assaulted by several patients. Last year he suffered a particularly brutal assault when a patient turned on him.

"And he slammed Shawn into the wall so hard that it buried his head into the wall and left hair in the wall," Frank Brackin says. "And then he hit him. And then Shawn hit that concrete floor."

Shawn needed emergency brain surgery. He was left with severe disabilities.

The day I visited Shawn, his hair was damp from sweat. It was a hot day in Napa, and the tiny room had no air conditioning or ventilation. I ask him if feels he's gotten well while at the hospital, if he thinks he's better off for having been sent there.

"I'm better off," he says. "I'm pretty good right now."

But his mother says things are not good. Before he entered the state hospital system, Shawn was able to drive and hold a job, Barbara Brackin says.

"He interacted with the family, laughed and joked, played cards. And he was the Uno champ," she says, and laughs. "Nobody else could usually beat him."

Toward the end of our 45-minute visit, Frank Brackin reads a Bible verse, and then they say their goodbyes.

Shawn Brackin (top middle) celebrating Christmas with his family at Napa State Hospital in December, 2011.
Shawn Brackin (top middle) celebrating Christmas with his family at Napa State Hospital in December 2011. (Courtesy Brackin Family)

"We'll visit you again on Sunday, Shawn," Frank says. "We'll have time to play some cards if you want. I love you. You're my main man, you know?

"Yes sir," Shawn says.

The latest assault on Shawn Brackin was just one of 1,800 at Napa State Hospital last year. To be fair, most of those assaults are very minor.

While the Brackins don't dismiss what their son did 20 years ago in that police station, they feel he's had to pay too high a price and have filed a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging negligence in failing to keep their son safe.

Napa has made many changes since psychiatric technician Donna Gross was murdered by a patient five years ago, but mostly those changes are intended to protect staff. While a new law took effect in July that will allow the hospital to isolate the most dangerous patients, hospital Executive Director Dolly Matteucci says more needs to be done.

"We have made tremendous progress in safety improvements and in mitigating violence at the hospital," she tells me. "But sadly it continues to be a part of our environment and our shared experience as patients and employees. And it is unacceptable."

Dolly Matteucci became executive director of Napa State Hospital after Donna Gross's murder. She stands in a conference room decorated with paintings created by psychiatric patients.
Dolly Matteucci became executive director of Napa State Hospital after the killing of Donna Gross. She stands in a conference room decorated with paintings created by psychiatric patients. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Not all families are critical of Napa. Many say they enjoy the visits with their loved ones -- who they say are finally getting the kind of treatment they should have gotten before the tragedy that sent them there happened.

Candace and Hans -- they’ve asked that we just use their first names to protect their privacy -- say their son has been at Napa for 3½ years. At their request, we’re not using his name.

I met with them in their home in Alameda, where Hans showed me his son's high school trophies from basketball and football.

"He loved fishing, so we have pictures of him catching a 32-pound salmon," says Hans.

Candace says that when their son was in high school, he started changing.

"He couldn't organize his homework. He couldn't turn in assignments," she says. "And he was becoming very quiet around the house, and also talked about feeling spirits and things around him."

It was the early signs of schizophrenia. The symptoms got worse, and his behavior escalated. Hans and Candace were so worried their son would hurt himself or someone else that they had him confined against his will.

"When police come into the house and handcuff your kid and take him out of the house, in the same house he grew up in sprawled across the floor, it's quite an experience," she says.

They called the police many times, but authorities could not hold him indefinitely, so he was always released. Candace and Hans tried repeatedly to get their son psychiatric help, but as an adult he had the right to refuse treatment.

Finally, in 2012 while suffering delusions, their son killed someone in the Berkeley Hills.

He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Napa State Hospital, where his mother says he is slowly getting better.

"It has taken this long to see real results of recovery," she says, "in little bits and pieces along the way. It was only because of the sustained treatment we had through Napa."


Despite the complaints and problems at California’s state mental hospitals, there’s a long waiting list to get into them -- and many of those waiting spend their time in jail.

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