Baby Madness

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

In Brooklyn, Tara's case was transferred to Mental Health Court, a new alternative for mentally ill defendants. This court's mission is to keep mentally ill people out of the prison system by hooking them up with mental health services in the community—residential or outpatient programs where they receive medication and therapy. For Tara, this court represented her best chance at getting out of jail.

Some days when Tara appeared in court she shouted and cried and strained against her cuffs. The two judges overseeing her cases ordered another mental-competency exam. Tara was ushered into a cramped office in the Manhattan Criminal Court building on March 20, 2003. Two psychiatrists interviewed her, asking the usual questions: What is the charge against you? Have you entered a plea? What is the function of a judge?

At first, Tara seemed coherent. She knew the name of her Manhattan lawyer ("Frank Rothman"), the function of her defense attorney ("Supposed to help me out"), the function of the district attorney ("Supposed to uphold the law"), and the function of a jury ("See if I am a criminal, a good guy or a bad guy").

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

When the doctors asked her what the consequences would be if she were found guilty, her calm veneer vanished. "I am not guilty!" she said. "I got things to do—I got to get to the U.N.—I have a plan for world peace—I'll put all the weapons in the ocean—seal them up—in every country—put them at the North Pole—I know a way to get world peace." The doctors concluded Tara was "not fit" to be prosecuted.

Tara was transferred to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, a maximum-security hospital on Wards Island. By now she'd been locked up for 256 days. Kirby holds people deemed mentally "unfit" to be prosecuted as well as people who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Among its most famous residents is Daniel Rakowitz, dubbed the "Butcher of Tompkins Square Park" by the tabloids 13 years earlier when he was accused of chopping up his girlfriend and cooking her body parts in a soup.

Time moves more quickly at Kirby than on Rikers. On Rikers, nobody cares if you stay in bed all day; at Kirby the staff keeps you busy. Tara went to ceramics and painting classes, bingo nights, the library. She played pool. No longer was she surrounded only by women; her unit was coed. Romantic relationships were prohibited, but she made some male friends, collecting a few names and addresses. Since Kirby is a hospital—not a jail—there was more access to psychiatrists and group therapy.

Tara refused medication at first, but eventually she permitted the staff to give her a shot of Prolixin, an antipsychotic. Tara knew she wouldn't get out of Kirby if she did not agree to be medicated. Over the years, she'd tried numerous antipsychotics, both old and new: Haldol, Thorazine, Prolixin, Risperdal, Geodon. The Prolixin worked better for some patients because it could be given as an injection, eliminating the possibility it could be spit out.

In the fall of 2003, 447 days after her Brooklyn Heights arrest, Tara was given yet another psych exam. This time, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew the definition of a plea bargain ("when you plead to a lesser charge"); she knew the consequences of pleading not guilty ("go to trial; I can either win or lose the trial, and I can be found innocent or guilty"); and she knew the maximum prison term she was facing ("15 years"). After eight months at Kirby, the staff decided she was mentally fit enough to be prosecuted. She was sent back to Rikers Island.

Part One: Rainy days
Part Two: Flip-flops and Zyprexa pills; A plan for world peace
Part Three: 'Little lobotomy'; 40 trips to court
Part Four: 'We danced like lunatics'; Letters to a judge; 1000 days

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