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EDITORIAL: Friday's Mentally ill are endangered in Florida's prisons

Florida Times-Union - 3/31/2017

March 31--First of two parts.

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Danny Geiger must have screamed when the first shot of scalding water hit him. Most of us would if the water directed at us was in excess of 180 degrees.

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Those who had shoved him into the shower must have hoped that the punishment would quiet him, calm the demons that raged inside his head, causing the mentally ill Orange Park man to shriek and yell incoherently.

It's unclear whether that happened.

What is clear is that the "shower treatment," a horrific punishment first devised for Geiger, later killed another mentally ill man at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012.

Geiger didn't die until last year after he was transferred from Dade to Lake Correctional Institute.

By the time his mother, Debra James, was finally allowed to visit him in Lake, he was psychotic, his illness no longer controlled by the carefully monitored medication on which he had depended for years.

James was stunned when she saw her son for the first time in many months.

"He had a ball of fecal matter the size of a baseball, and he was eating it," she says in a dull monotone. "He was no longer mentally attached to this world."

Although Geiger's mother pleaded with the guards to take the ball of excrement from her son, she said they just laughed.

Many months later, Geiger died in Lake.

His mother says he was skeletal and had so many bruises the funeral home director insisted on a closed-casket funeral.

"These are the nightmares that families face," James says.

She's since moved from Florida to try to escape the horror of what happened to her son, a boy mentally ill since the age of 13, in this state's prison system.

They're the terrors faced by too many people ever since this country's prisons supplanted mental hospitals as the go-to places for housing mentally ill patients.

A national scandal

Since the closure of many public mental institutions in the 1970s, prisons have become the only place many of the state's mentally ill could be sent. Today, approximately 18,000 of Florida's 100,000 inmates have some type of mental illness.

Yet prisons are woefully unprepared to care for the mentally ill.

Prisons are dangerous, even deadly, places for the mentally ill.

There are too few prison staffers, disturbingly few mental health professionals and a prison culture that encourages officers to protect their own even if they've stepped across the line.

Harriet Krzykowski, a former counselor who worked at Dade, remembers Geiger well. And she remembers how he was mistreated by correctional officers.

"He had behaviors due to his mental illness that most people found grating," she says. "He was constantly loud, and the officers would rile him up more to annoy the other inmates. I saw he was targeted by the officers more than most for verbal abuse and threats."

There are questions, too, whether Geiger was even fed regularly at Dade.

Krzykowski said she saw him go from skinny to gaunt -- "cheeks and eyes sunken, clothes hanging off him, hip bones sticking out."

If Geiger's story was an anomaly, an outlier, it might be more understandable that a mentally ill inmate was rebuked for causing so much ruckus that other inmates couldn't sleep.

But his story, unfortunately, isn't unusual.

Stories of similar callous treatment and, yes, even sadistic behavior involving mentally ill inmates have been leaking out of Florida's prisons for years.

There was Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old inmate who died in 2012 after receiving the same "shower treatment" first used on Geiger. He also was mentally ill and died at Dade.

There was Frank Smith, a paranoid schizophrenic from Miami, who died that same year in the custody of the Department of Corrections. In the investigation following his death, another inmate said Smith was beaten routinely by the guards and was later rendered paraplegic by what guards said was a fall.

And there was Vincent Gaines, another schizophrenic scheduled to be released in July of this year. He died, however, in 2015 in Union Correctional Institute where he was found severely malnourished and dehydrated, his body covered in feces.

Autopsy findings showed "he was subjected to abuse and neglect while housed in the inpatient mental health unit before his death," according to the draft of a complaint by Disability Rights Florida.

The frightening thing is that these four men -- Danny Geiger, Darren Rainey, Frank Smith and Vincent Gaines -- may be only the tip of a hidden scandal.

That same report by Disability Rights Florida lists other mentally ill inmates who received inadequate care and horrific treatment at the hands of the Department of Corrections.

It suggests there are more.

It's abuse even correctional officers seemed to acknowledge.

Harold Hemstead, the whistleblowing inmate who first alerted the public to Dade's use of the "shower treatment," once spoke to a British blogger about the system he still calls home. He said in 2012 the abuse within the mental health unit at Dade had gotten so bad that guards began greeting new inmates to their system with a grisly welcome.

The chilling words -- which bespoke of the horrors awaiting them inside its walls -- must have been especially terrifying for mentally ill prisoners.

"Welcome to Auschwitz," the guards said.

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Coming Sunday: What's being done.

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(c)2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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