If Danny Geiger were still alive, his mother believes he would be pleased with a settlement agreement filed recently by the state to improve mental health care within its prison system.
But Geiger, a mentally ill man who hailed from Orange Park, died in 2016 after being abused by the prison system that had confined him. Her last image of her son is as a disheveled, skeletal man.
″(The settlement) sounds like it would put an end to the human torture because that’s what the Department of Corrections has been doing,” says Geiger’s mother, Debra James. “That’s exactly what our son was subjected to and this could have saved his life.”
The settlement is the end result of a year of mediation between the Florida Department of Corrections and Disability Rights Florida over the quality of care being provided to persistent and chronically mentally ill inmates.
These are inmates with psychiatric illnesses that are so severe they often landed them in special mental health units in prison. That’s what happened to Geiger.
The year-long mediation was the result of a suit threatened by Disability Rights Florida against the Corrections Department that outlined numerous often-gruesome cases in which mentally ill inmates were injured or even killed. Even when that didn’t happen, inmates with mental issues often failed to receive needed treatment or medication.
In the midst of the negotiations, a team from Disability Rights Florida toured mental health units at Union Correction Institution near Raiford and Clermont’s Lake Correctional Institution. These have been noted as the most problematic mental health units in the state.
“We looked at scores of treatment plans and even though people’s diagnoses varied, the interventions being recommended for those patients was exactly the same,” says Peter Sleasman, an attorney for Disability Rights Florida “Even if people started to decompensate or do worse the interventions wouldn’t change.”
In response to the mediation, the DOC has agreed to make numerous changes to the way it handles mentally ill inmates.
It will immediately close the Union Correctional mental health unit. In addition, within 90 days, officials at the Lake prison — where Geiger’s mother last saw her emaciated son — must prepare policies on when restraints can be used on each mentally ill inmate.
Within a year, the corrections department must provide tailor-made treatment plans for each individual in mental health units. Additional oversight will be required when restraints are used on mentally ill inmates or they are sent to solitary confinement. In addition, more attention will be provided to inmates who refuse treatment or medication.
Finally, the settlement requires that a special monitoring team periodically visit each of the prison system’s mental health units to ensure compliance with the terms.
The settlement could go a long way to improving mental health care for a prison system that houses at least 18,000 mentally ill inmates. The question now is whether the state — notoriously stingy with funding for mental health issues — will allocate the funding needed to make it work.