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How One Woman's Cycle of Incarceration and Mental Illness Helped Heal a Rural System

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Marlene Baker has fixed up her small studio apartment in Weed, Calif. with tapestries and artwork to make it feel homey. Her cat, Leonardo, is a key companion. Baker lived on the streets with untreated mental illness for years. But after a felony arrest, Siskiyou County officials agreed to house her and treat her in the community, rather than send her to a far-away state mental hospital. (Lee Romney)

This story is excerpted from the preview episode of November In My Soul, a forthcoming podcast about mental Illness, confinement and liberty in California. It is co-produced and co-hosted by Lee Romney and Jenny Johnson.

For years, Marlene Baker’s untreated mental illness kept her on the streets, hustling to stay warm and stay fed. Local law enforcement would pick her up for minor offenses — drinking in public or hitchhiking — then book her into the overcrowded jail and release her right back to the streets.

“Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you and you do things,” Baker, now 58, said in a 2019 interview at her tiny studio apartment in the Siskiyou County town of Weed. “I didn’t trust my mind for a long time. Still, I’ll wake up sometimes in the middle of the night screaming, like, is there a ghost in here or something? And then I just take my medicine.”

Stories of our colliding criminal justice and mental health systems play out across the country. That crisis is most visible, and most commonly reported, in urban areas. But Baker’s is a rural story, full of profound rural challenges. Siskiyou County, which abuts the Oregon border, spans 6,000 square miles and is home to just shy of 44,000 people. Community mental health resources are thin. Public transportation is almost nonexistent, housing is scarce and recruiting mental health clinicians nearly impossible.

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Marlene Baker was too ill to voluntarily seek help for her condition. If she committed a more serious crime, she could receive the mental health treatment she needed. That's because a felony charge would finally compel her to accept care provided through the criminal justice system. Recent data from Siskiyou County indicate the jail is often the landing place for people with serious mental illness: About half the inmates are prescribed psychiatric meds, more than double the state median.

Mental illness plays a role in a high number of criminal cases here. What to do once those people enter the system, said Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus, is a vexing question.

“You've got a community that wants to be protected,” he said. “But you also have a person who needs intervention and not necessarily the kind of intervention that we have to offer. It's a massive problem.”

In Baker’s case, though, despite those rural challenges — in some ways because of them — a number of key people took some risks and bent some rules to help her heal in the community, with her freedom intact. And her success is helping to bring about some bold changes in the way Siskiyou County confronts its mental health crisis.

Marlene Baker, now 58, fills her small studio apartment with tapestries and artwork to make it homey. (Lee Romney)

‘I grew up normal’

Baker is petite with a penchant for fashion and perfect dusky eye makeup. Her apartment, separated from Interstate 5 by a flimsy chain-link fence, can be loud. But Baker has spruced it up inside “to make it homey” with tapestries and artwork.

Her journey began in a “you-blink-you-miss-it” Central Valley town where, Baker said, “I grew up normal. We had a nice house. We had money. I went to school, graduated.” 

She had two kids, got divorced and headed to her parents’ vacation home in Mount Shasta, where she landed a job in the front office of a local eye doctor. Then: an accident. Baker stepped out of her car onto black ice, taking her “whole spine out from the neck down.”

Multiple surgeries followed, and Baker gave her kids to their dad to raise as her bones healed. There was a complication, though: A surgical tear in her spinal covering had left her brain stem dry for four days.

“I’d get hysterical and not know what’s really going around,” she said, “and verbally say stuff that didn’t make sense.”

Marlene had yet to get her diagnosis — schizoaffective disorder. She didn’t know about the underlying brain injury that likely caused her illness. She didn’t know she was ill, but her life was falling apart.

Baker wound up homeless in and around Mount Shasta, where winters are cold and bears and mountain lions wander through town at night.

“All the guys would watch over me while I slept at night,” she said, “and I’ve lost about four or five of them right now. The other ones, they’re still going in and out of mental hospitals.”

Baker’s parents had now moved to Mount Shasta, too, and they’d see her panhandling. They didn’t understand her angry outbursts and erratic behavior any better than she did.

“They were embarrassed,” Baker said. “They didn’t know what to do with me.”

This went on for more than 15 years.

‘Not a single crisis bed’

Even in big cities, where services are not as hard to come by, people often slip through the cracks of the voluntary mental health system. So, California’s Welfare and Institutions Code 5150 serves as an important tool to help people like Baker, who don't know that they're sick. Under that civil statute, anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others, or gravely disabled, can be temporarily committed to a locked psychiatric facility for treatment. There’s just one problem — there are no facilities like that in Siskiyou County.

“If someone has a psychotic break, they go to a hospital that is hours and hours away,” said Siskiyou County Public Defender Lael Kayfetz. "You have to leave your family. You have to leave your support system.”

Baker was hospitalized just once under a 5150 hold: A case worker drove her 260 miles south to Sacramento. Mostly, though, Baker cycled in and out of the jail and back to the streets. Until 2013.  

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‘I’m going to kill you’

Baker’s family rarely invited her over, but as a gesture of good will, they welcomed her to stay the night after a Thanksgiving meal. They woke up to her screams. She was in a psychosis — delusional and hallucinating. She thought an intruder had sliced her chest with a knife. She didn’t recognize her own family. And, in the chaos, she told her mom, “I’m going to kill you.”

“Her mom was scared,” said Kayfetz, who would represent Baker in connection with the incident. “So, they called law enforcement not understanding what they were setting in motion. There was no putting the brakes on that.”

The district attorney charged Baker with Penal Code Section 422: making criminal threats. When it’s charged as a felony, as it was in Baker’s case, “it's a strike under the three strikes law,” Kayfetz said. “It changes everything about how you're treated in the system, how you're treated by law enforcement.”

A felony conviction can also make it difficult — or impossible — to get government-subsidized housing, for life.

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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