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Calif. Hospital Struggles To Control Patient-On-Patient Violence

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

California's Napa State Psychiatric Hospital had more than 1,800 assaults last year. Five years ago this week, a psychiatric technician was murdered by a patient. We heard yesterday how the violence affects staff. Today, what happens when patients are the target of violent assaults from other patients? Scott Shafer of member station KQED reports.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Most of the people committed to Napa State Hospital came through the criminal justice system. The majority are not violent, but often, they are of the target of violence. This is a story about one of those patients. It's rare for the media to get into Napa State Hospital. The administration cites patient privacy and security. But Frank and Barbara Brackin invited me to join them to visit with their son, Shawn. We met up in the parking lot.

BARBARA BRACKIN: Sometimes he says he can't sleep when he's expecting a visit...

FRANK BRACKIN: Yeah. He just enjoys it so much.

B. BRACKIN: ...'cause he's so excited, right.

F. BRACKIN: Yeah. Our main concern now is Shawn's safety. He was not given the death sentence, and he's almost had it twice here in the last three years.

SHAFER: So right now, we've handed over our driver's licenses. We're standing in front of a sally port, waiting to get permission to come into Napa State Hospital here. There's a number of gates you have to go through. You can hear them in the background.

We passed through several locked doors and a metal detector where we surrender cell phones and wallets. Then we're in a room to visit with Shawn.

SHAWN BRACKIN: I'm glad to see you, and I'm glad to see you too.

SHAFER: Shawn Brackin shuffles toward us. He's wearing a blue helmet to protect his head in case he falls or is pushed. As we settle in, I make small talk.

So what did you have for lunch today?

S. BRACKIN: I don't know. I can't remember. I think I had some milk.

F. BRACKIN: You didn't have anything else?

S. BRACKIN: Rice Krispies.

SHAFER: For lunch, you had Rice Krispies.

S. BRACKIN: Rice Krispies.

SHAFER: Shawn wasn't always in this condition.

F. BRACKIN: We've got a picture we can show you...

SHAFER: Yeah...

F. BRACKIN: ...of him.

SHAFER: The Brackins are sitting in their home near Sacramento, leafing through a photo book. Shawn's life took a bad turn at age six. 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 it was an attempt of suicide by cop.

F. BRACKIN: He was wanting to die, and so he put himself before the firing squad. And he had no idea the firing squad would turn on themselves.

SHAFER: 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 the plea deal, Shawn was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He eventually ended up at Napa State Hospital.

F. BRACKIN: We had no choice, really. We wanted to protect Shawn and make sure that he had a safe environment, and we thought a hospital would be a safe environment.

SHAFER: Over the years, Shawn Brackin has been brutally assaulted by other patients. And then last year, another patient turned on him.

F. BRACKIN: And he slammed Shawn into the wall so hard that it buried his head into the wall and left hair in the wall. And then he hit him, and then Shawn hit that concrete floor.

SHAFER: Shawn needed emergency brain surgery and was left with severe disabilities.

F. BRACKIN: We love you, Shawn.

SHAFER: The day I visited Shawn, his hair was damp from sweat. It was a hot day in Napa. The tiny room had no air-conditioning or ventilation.

Shawn, let me ask you a question if I can. You came to Napa State Hospital almost 20 years ago now. You were...

S. BRACKIN: ...Yes, sir. I sure did.

SHAFER: You were a young man then.

S. BRACKIN: Yes, I was. I was 25 when I got locked up at county jail.

SHAFER: And now you're about 45, right?

S. BRACKIN: Probably so.

F. BRACKIN: ...Yeah..

S. BRACKIN: But I don't know for sure.

F. BRACKIN: Yeah.

SHAFER: I'm just wondering. Do you feel, you know - do you feel like you've gotten well? Are you better off today than you were when you got here?

S. BRACKIN: I'm better. I'm pretty good right now.

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

B. BRACKIN: He interacted with the family, you know - laughed and joked and played cards. And he was the Uno champ. Nobody else could usually be him.

F. BRACKIN: (Laughter).

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

F. BRACKIN: And we'll visit you again on Sunday, Shawn.

S. BRACKIN: All right. Thank you.

F. BRACKIN: And we'll maybe have time to play some cards with you if you want. I love you very much.

S. BRACKIN: I love you too.

F. BRACKIN: You're my main man, you know.

S. BRACKIN: Yes, Sir.

SHAFER: The assault on Shawn Brackin is just one of 1,800 at Napa last year. 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. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in Napa, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.