A court officer whisked Tara into Brooklyn’s Mental Health Court two days before Christmas 2003. She had stopped going to court while she was at Kirby; as soon as she got back to Rikers, the routine resumed. This morning, she wore a pink T-shirt with her usual courtroom footwear: slip-on canvas sneakers.
“Judge, I just wanted to say, if I can say without crying, I just got the right medication, and I feel like now I’m not having delusions,” Tara said. “I feel like, you know, when I got in trouble with all these people, I was asking them a lot of questions. I wasn’t out to kidnap anybody. I was just asking them questions because I feel kind of paranoid.”
“They got scared, you know,” Judge Matthew D’Emic said.
“I understand that. I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen again. I’m on the right medication now. . . . I’m on 25 milligrams of Prolixin once every two weeks.”
“They inject it?”
“Yes . . . It works good for me. I don’t have the nightmares anymore. I don’t have the delusions anymore. . . . I was so suspect of everybody I saw with a baby, that they were trying to hurt these kids or they were trying to sell these kids. I mean everybody I saw. And this went on for years. So I’m hoping that—with the medication and with somebody to talk to and things to do with my time like go to school and things like that—I can get over this.”
“You seem better than I ever saw you,” Judge D’Emic said.
Tara hoped the judge would send her to a mental health program. She thought this was the best of the four options she had. If she didn’t get into a program, she’d have to plead guilty (she’d heard the prosecutor might offer seven years), go to trial (if convicted, she could get 15 years), or enter a plea of “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect,” commonly known as the insanity plea.
If she took this last option, she’d be confined indefinitely at Kirby. During her stay there, she had met people who’d been locked up for 10 years or more. They warned her that if she took the insanity plea, she’d lose her freedom for a very long time, maybe even forever. In any case, it is rare that a defendant chooses this option and a prosecutor approves it. Only 32 people in New York State were found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2003.
Getting out of jail and into a mental health program depended on Tara’s ability to play by the rules. The number one rule, of course, was that she keep taking her meds. Now that Tara had returned to Rikers, Jean worried that she would start refusing her Prolixin shots and become delusional once again. This is a common occurrence: Inmates fail a 730 exam, go to a hospital, get stabilized, return to Rikers, and then decompensate all over again.
Jean assigned herself the task of trying to keep her daughter stable. She scribbled down the date of every Prolixin shot Tara received. Then she called and berated the mental health staff on Rikers if 14 days passed and Tara hadn’t received another shot. A day or two could make a huge difference. Maybe the guards couldn’t see it, but Jean could tell from talking to Tara when the delusions were beginning to take hold again.
Sometimes Tara appreciated her mother’s efforts; other times she didn’t. The angry calls from her mother to the jail’s mental health office did not endear Tara to the staff. About her mother, Tara says, “She always makes trouble for me. Well, she doesn’t make trouble for me—but when there’s trouble, she calls and gives them hell. They’re like, ‘Don’t have your mother call here anymore,’ because she’s probably so obnoxious.” Other times, Tara appreciated her mother; many inmates had nobody looking out for them.
The Prolixin injections kept Tara’s delusions at bay, but there were side effects too. “When I’m not on medication, I think about a zillion things during the day,” she said. “A lot of times, I felt like I was in heaven.” Prolixin suppressed not only her delusions, but also her imagination. Now she was bored all the time, and depressed too. “I can’t think of anything while I’m on this medication,” she said. “Your mind doesn’t turn the same way it used to. It’s almost like a little lobotomy.”
Except for the days when she went to court, every day was the same. Sitting around the unit, trying to block out the noise of the television, making yet another cup of coffee, inhaling the stale air. She was allowed outside for one hour a day, at 8 a.m., but she rarely went because she was still sleeping or it was too cold. The lack of exercise plus the Prolixin had pushed her weight up 30 pounds.
“I want to get out of here,” she said in March 2004, after she had been locked up for 601 days. “I’ve never been so tired of anything. I’m physically tired from all of this. I’m not living a normal life. I’m not walking around. I’m not getting any fresh air. I run a little and I’m worn out. I feel like I aged 10 years.”
Tara was about to turn 37 years old. She talked about getting her own apartment in Manhattan, finding work as a waitress, enrolling at the New School, making some new friends. She wanted to find a boyfriend, get pregnant, have a family. Her aspirations were no different from those of other women her age. But as the months crawled by, her optimism faded. “I used to dream that I would get out of jail and I would do things with my life,” she said. “Now I don’t even think about that anymore.”
40 TRIPS TO COURT
Throughout the spring, Tara continued to go to court in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Jean attended nearly all these court dates, sitting in the audience with her pocketbook on her lap. Jean didn’t tell Tara, but she found these days scary and stressful. As soon as Jean walked out of the courtroom, she’d shove a hand in her pocketbook and rummage around for a cigarette. Sometimes she’d pull out a tissue, too, to wipe tears from her eyes.
In Mental Health Court, Judge D’Emic always allowed Jean to speak briefly with Tara. One morning in March, as an officer escorted Tara into the courtroom, Jean slid into her regular seat in the front row. When the clerk called Tara’s case, the prosecutor and defense attorney headed up to the judge’s bench for a private discussion. Tara walked toward Jean, settling into a chair next to the wooden banister.
“Those three people are up there deciding your life,” Jean said, glancing toward the judge’s bench.
“I hope they give me a chance,” Tara said. “They should.”
“You certainly have made quite an impression on society, madam,” Jean said.
She reached over and stroked Tara’s cheek. Some days this sort of gesture got a strong reprimand from a court officer—”No touching!”—but today nobody seemed to notice. At the end of their three-minute chat, Jean wrapped her arms around Tara. Tara’s wrists were cuffed behind her; she couldn’t return the hug.
Judge D’Emic seemed inclined to let Tara go into a mental health program, but only if she remained stable and received approval from the court psychiatrist.
“Can you be patient?” Judge D’Emic asked.
“I’m trying,” Tara said.
“We’re just trying to work it out,” he said.
The average length of stay in the city jail system is 47 days. Mentally ill defendants invariably spend extra time locked up if they have to go to a hospital to be stabilized before their case can proceed. Defendants charged with murder or another serious felony are typically held the longest, sometimes for more than a year before their case is resolved. But even compared to all these inmates, Tara had already been imprisoned without a conviction for an exceptionally long time—more than 700 days.
In Mental Health Court, a social worker finds programs for the defendants, overseeing a process that is more complex than it sounds. Many programs are hesitant to take somebody with a long rap sheet, especially someone charged with a violent crime. And there is a chronic shortage of beds. Defendants who need a residential program can spend an extra six months or more in jail, waiting for an empty bed.
The unusual circumstances of Tara’s case made the task of getting her into a program especially difficult. Since she had criminal cases pending in two boroughs—Brooklyn and Manhattan—she would need approval from two prosecutors and two judges. And in Brooklyn, a prosecutor from Staten Island was handling her case because one of the babies she had been accused of trying to kidnap was the daughter of a Brooklyn prosecutor.
In June, Tara got her first bit of good news: The court psychiatrist decided she was stable enough to be sent to a program. And she found out that FEGS, a well-respected mental health agency, was considering giving her a bed at its residence on Wards Island. The prospect of getting out of jail soon lifted Tara’s spirits.
On July 16, 2004, the second anniversary of her Brooklyn Heights arrest, she was still on Rikers. By now she’d made 40 trips to court. Every time she walked into a courtroom, she was a little paler and a little heavier. Her once brown hair was now gray on top.
On August 10, she was brought to court in Brooklyn once again. She stood in her usual spot—at the defense table next to her court-appointed lawyer, Paul Lieberman.
“I can’t stay there any longer!” Tara shouted, stamping one foot on the floor. “It’s been two years!”
“Miss McDonald, why don’t you come up?” Judge D’Emic said.
A small group approached the judge’s bench—Tara, her attorney, the prosecutor, the court social worker, two court officers. The judge offered a few soothing words, urging Tara to be patient while they tried to get her a bed in a program. Tara returned to her chair at the defense table, her eyes red and watery.
“I hate it there!” she hollered. “Paul, how much time am I looking at? Can you ask them? I’m going to spend five years in this freakin’ program that I can’t even get to! I don’t want to sit around here anymore! I can’t stand it!”
Three: ‘Little lobotomy’; 40 trips to court