Baby Madness

How one young woman's delusions cost her years of freedom


On July 19, 2002, three days after her arrest, Tara stood before Judge Joseph Kevin McKay in Brooklyn. She'd hardly eaten or slept in weeks. There were still hints of beauty in her appearance—in her creamy skin and soft brown eyes—but by now she bore only a passing resemblance to the 20-year-old who'd started hanging out in the East Village in the late 1980s. Five or six teeth had rotted out, casualties of a decade of drug use.

She spoke loudly and emphatically, as she always did when she hadn't had any medication in weeks. "I didn't do anything wrong, man," she said. "I want to see my children. I want to see if they're OK. That's all I did. That's all I did."

Tara, on her 973rd day locked up without a conviction
photo: Cary Conover
Tara, on her 973rd day locked up without a conviction

"OK," the judge said.

"I didn't try to kidnap anybody. I just went to say hello. . . . It's very strange to see some stranger walk around with your fucking children. Did you know that? Have you ever noticed that?"

"I can't say I have," he said.

Tara thought that if the judge knew she'd been trying to help the children—not harm them—then he'd realize all of this was just a big misunderstanding. The judge didn't quite see things that way. "Forthwith to Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward," he said.

Most defendants go straight to jail; those who show signs of a serious mental illness are taken to a hospital. Two psychiatrists interviewed Tara, conducting an evaluation known as a "730 exam" to determine if she was mentally fit enough to understand the court proceedings and assist with her own defense. She passed this exam and was moved to the women's jail on Rikers Island. There, she was assigned to a Mental Observation Unit.

This jail has two M.O. units, housing a total of 90 women. The mental health staff refers to the women as "patients"; the guards call them "inmates." Virtually all have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, or a depressive disorder. Shoelaces are banned, to prevent the women from hanging themselves. Everyone wears plastic flip-flops, slip-on sneakers, or regular sneakers with the tongues hanging out. Twice a day, a nurse wheels in the pill cart. Each drawer has an inmate's name on it; the pills in Tara's drawer were Zyprexa, an antipsychotic. Some days she refused to join the pill line. She was convinced she didn't need medication.

Days in the M.O. Unit are incredibly dull, even more boring than in other parts of the jail. The women there don't go to the mess hall; the food comes to them. Unlike other inmates, who can get jobs in the laundry or bakery, these women can't work outside their housing unit. They pass the hours by drinking coffee, braiding each other's hair, sleeping, bickering. The television blares constantly: Jerry Springer in the morning, soap operas in the afternoon, WWE SmackDown! on Thursday nights.

Jean visited Tara every week. She'd retired several years earlier, and now her efforts to help Tara had become practically a part-time job. Jean never got to see Tara's cell block, but she imagined the worst sort of place. When Tara called home, Jean could sometimes hear women shouting in the background. Jean became especially frightened every time she read a newspaper story about another inmate suicide.

In recent years, the number of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system has soared. An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the people in New York City jails suffer from a mental illness. The number may be even higher for women: In the women's jail on Rikers, more than one-third of the inmates receive mental health services. These individuals are considered prisoners first, patients second. The main purpose of the jail system is to confine them—not treat them.

If Tara had been born several decades earlier, she likely would have been locked up for many years in a state hospital, not a jail. In the 1950s, 90,000 New Yorkers resided in state mental hospitals; today that number is less than 5,000. Good intentions led to the disappearance of thousands of state hospital beds. With the emergence of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s and '60s, there was a push to move mental patients out of hospitals and into community programs.

This lofty idea never received adequate funding. Today there are not nearly enough beds in residential programs for everyone who needs them. For Tara and many other people with a serious mental illness, jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions.


The only time Tara left Rikers was when she had to appear at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Every few weeks, an officer woke her around 4 a.m. so she could get ready. She'd spend the day on the ninth floor of the courthouse, locked in a pen with several other women. Lunch consisted of two bologna sandwiches, a carton of milk, maybe an orange. The trip could take all day. Sometimes she wouldn't get back to the M.O. Unit until evening.

After her name appeared in the newspapers following her arrest in Brooklyn Heights, several people reported to the police in Manhattan that she had done the same thing to them. At the end of 2002, the Manhattan district attorney's office charged her with the same crime: attempted kidnapping. Now she had two criminal cases, which meant she had to go to court twice as often.

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