How One Woman’s Cycle of Incarceration and Mental Illness Helped Heal a Rural System – KQED

Baker was still psychotic. And she was clearly “incompetent to stand trial” — that means you can’t follow the proceedings, understand the charges or help your attorney. The process of regaining competency usually involves a trip to a state mental hospital, often after long waits in a jail cell. But for Baker, there was a hitch: Siskiyou County’s jail has so few beds for women that even those charged with felonies are often quickly set free. Baker was already out, with instructions in court for her first hearing in the case. If she failed to show up, the judge would likely issue a warrant for her arrest.

“By some miracle she made it to her next court appearance,” Kayfetz said, “and that is the thing that saved her.”

Bending the Rules

Sometimes, it takes an exception to create a new rule, and Baker became a test case. The judge, the public defender, county mental health officials and even the prosecutor, came to an agreement. Instead of returning her to jail or sending her to a state hospital hundreds of miles away, they’d try to help Baker on the outside.

The two psychologists who had to evaluate her competency arranged to do it at Kayfetz’s office, “something,” she said, “that had never been done before.”

Still, how Baker was going to keep complying with court demands — given her lack of housing and the county’s spotty public transportation — was not at all clear. If she had an address, county behavioral health workers could fetch her for her appointments.

“Lael told me, ‘You need [to get] off the street,’ ” Baker recalled. “Getting off the street was key to my healing.”

Baker’s case worker began to search, placing her first in a series of motels before, finally, a permanent home. It was small and noisy, but with four walls and a door with a lock. On her first night, Baker said, “I had a backpack for a pillow” and a comforter her case worker grabbed from the office. Still, she missed the outdoors.

“You breathe all the fresh air all night long, you’re under God’s heavens. It’s hard to stop being homeless,” she said. “You’re free.”

Marlene Baker’s tiny studio apartment, in a rundown former motel, is separated from Interstate 5 by a chain-link fence. On this day in September 2019, she shows off the old-fashioned pantaloons she’s hung there to dry. (Lee Romney)

Freedom

Baker had gained a different kind of freedom. But she was still facing a felony charge. To retain her liberty, she’d have to engage fully with treatment — something she had resisted for years. Now though, thanks to Siskiyou County’s only practicing psychiatrist, she built a bond and began to trust. They spoke about medicinal plants and healthy foods, and Baker agreed to long-acting injections of an anti-psychotic medication that cleared her mind.

It was time to enter a plea. Kayfetz knew a guilty plea would jeopardize Baker’s housing — and her stability. But there was another option — she could plead not guilty by reason of insanity. That plea almost always means you go to a state mental hospital for a minimum of six months and often much longer. Baker had to stand up in court and say she understood she might spend the rest of her life there. Because Kayfetz had a plan.

Her client was thriving. Sending her hundreds of miles away to a state hospital, she argued, wasn’t necessary or humane.

Kirk Andrus, the district attorney, balked. But the judge agreed with Kayfetz. If Baker complied with her treatment, the felony charge would eventually be dismissed. For years, though, she’d have to check in regularly with the judge.

Her progress exceeded expectations. Four years after that fateful Thanksgiving, Baker received training to work as a peer facilitator for a weekly mental health support group. Dipping into her meager disability checks, she prepped healthy stews and soups for the group in her tiny kitchen and brought in Bingo prizes she bought at the Dollar General.

Marlene Baker prepares lentil stew in September 2019 in the tiny kitchen of her studio apartment. (Lee Romney)

Her relationship with her family healed, too, especially with her mom and sister.

Finally, on a sweltering August day in 2019, her case came up on the Siskiyou County Superior Court calendar for the very last time.

Marlene Baker got to the courthouse in a crushed velvet spaghetti-strap dress and lavender eye makeup. She hadn’t slept. She was too nervous. The judge congratulated her and declared her “restored” — as in restored to sanity. Within minutes, her long ordeal in the criminal justice system was over.

Loss and Hope

Sanity cannot stave off hardship. Within months of her court victory, Baker’s longtime case worker died unexpectedly. Then came COVID-19 and deep isolation. Baker’s peer group has technically been allowed to meet. But “nobody wants to go because it’s 6 feet apart and you can’t eat in there,” she said, “and that’s why they always came. I would bring them good food.”

Baker’s visits with her psychiatrist are no longer in person, just phone calls. So the long-acting injections are out, too. She has to remember to take her pills each morning. And last fall, more loss.

“My mom died, and two months later, my dad died,” she said.

Given all that, Kayfetz said, the fact that Baker is still housed and plugged in to mental health services is a victory. Beyond that, Baker’s success has helped bring about broader change.

Not long after her six-year fight to shed her felony charge came to an end, Siskiyou County launched what’s known as a behavioral health court. It wipes the criminal charges off the records of participants who complete treatment. Every inmate who arrives at the jail now takes an iPad questionnaire to determine if they need mental health services or would be good candidates for the new court. If they are, they get that treatment right here in the community, with their liberty intact.

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