Brandon Hayes

Brandon Hayes is accused of vandalizing the sign at the historic Sweet Olive Cemetery in Baton Rouge.

Brandon Hayes had come unmoored again. For weeks, he wandered around Baton Rouge during a mental health crisis, spray-painting nonsensical messages along the way before finally checking himself into the hospital for treatment.

His mother breathed a sigh of relief, but that feeling didn't last long.

Baton Rouge police officers soon showed up at the behavioral health center where Hayes was being treated, placed him under arrest and transported him to the parish jail — an outdated and overcrowded detention center that even the warden has called "deplorable" for mental health patients.

Hayes, 31, was booked last month on more than a dozen counts of graffiti, his hospital bed replaced with a solitary confinement cell. He spent more than a month behind bars, held there on $12,000 bail. But last week, a judge granted his release amid coronavirus concerns.

Hayes' plight involves an unexpected cast of characters and an unlikely series of events: the unintended consequences of a state senator's 911 call, public outrage over vandalism at Baton Rouge's oldest African American cemetery, the psychological fallout from a 2019 police shooting and, of course, the novel coronavirus. 

More than 100 Baton Rouge defendants have recently regained their freedom as officials work to reduce the parish jail population, anticipating a coronavirus outbreak inside the lockup. But Hayes' case illustrates a bigger problem: how people facing severe mental illness are treated within the local criminal justice system.

Baton Rouge leaders have long complained that mentally ill residents land in jail because there's nowhere else for law enforcement to put them. It's an argument they've presented in support of the forthcoming Bridge Center, a publicly funded psychiatric stabilization center. 

Anna Hayes said her son's recent experiences undermine that argument. Instead of continuing to receive treatment, he was held behind bars for minor alleged crimes while Baton Rouge taxpayers footed the bill for his incarceration. 

"That jail is not the place for my son," she said. "He's being treated like some kind of dangerous criminal instead of the mental patient that he is."

Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said officers determined the arrest was appropriate due to the amount of graffiti and the damage to a historic site. Police decided to arrest Hayes at the hospital because he wasn't being held there against his will and officers had reason to believe he would leave soon. 

McKneely also said booking him into jail would be the first step in getting him court-ordered psychiatric treatment.

Meanwhile, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced new efforts to address vandalism, encouraging people to "fight back against graffiti in their neighborhoods" and report it. She noted citizen involvement led police to Hayes, who's accused of spray painting incomprehensible words and images on the sign outside the historic Sweet Olive Cemetery, among other places. 

Some critics found the mayor's message troubling, saying Baton Rouge leaders have more important things to worry about like gun violence, poverty and systemic racism.

"I don't understand where the leaders of this parish are getting their priorities from, but the result is clear: the continued demonization of people who are struggling with mental illness," said Rev. Alexis Anderson, a local jail reform activist. 

Broome's office said her intent wasn't to single out someone with mental illness but to inform the public on how to fight vandalism.

Brandon Hayes has a long criminal history in East Baton Rouge Parish, largely minor and nonviolent offenses like theft, criminal trespassing and marijuana possession. He also had an outstanding bench warrant from an ongoing obscenity case in which he's accused of touching himself inappropriately while receiving a medical exam. The judge had released Hayes from his bond obligation last spring after finding no probable cause to keep him incarcerated awaiting trial. Hayes later failed to show up to court, and police said that factored into their decision to book him on the graffiti counts.

The case against Hayes

State Sen. Cleo Fields was driving to his Government Street office after church Jan. 19 when he noticed graffiti up and down the street, including on his office. The Baton Rouge Democrat said he called police because he wasn't sure whether the messages could have been considered threatening.

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A witness came forward, saying he believed the person responsible was homeless and mentally ill, according to a police report filed into the court record. Anna Hayes also called law enforcement and said her son "suffers from mental illness, has been off his medication, and has been spray painting buildings and property" in that area.

Another month would pass before Baton Rouge Police Department detectives filed a warrant for his arrest.

Fields said he was shocked to learn how the case had been handled.

"That person needs help, not a jail cell. Period," Fields said. "This emphasizes the need for mental health facilities all across the state."

Hayes has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges against him. His public defender, Kristen Richardson, denies that he's responsible for the graffiti cited in the charges.

"This is someone who was getting the treatment he needed," Richardson said. "It's obvious to me that Brandon has been consistently trying to help himself, but the system has consistently failed him."

Origins of illness

Anna Hayes said her son's mental illness began to surface in earnest about three years ago. He started taking medication to treat his schizophrenia and enrolled in various treatment programs, but continued acting strange and withdrawn, hearing voices and obsessing over his artwork — line drawings of people and objects surrounded with shapes and words. He would disappear for extended periods of time. 

The illness became most pronounced after he witnessed the fatal police shooting of his father following an overnight standoff last summer, Anna Hayes said. Police spent hours negotiating with the man, who told them he wasn't going back to jail, then stepped outside and started shooting. That prompted officers to return fire, according to police.

Anna Hayes later filed repeated requests to have her son committed for treatment — four in December alone, records show. Those requests, which are submitted to the Coroner's Office, include the following statements: "Patient is painting on buildings all over the community. Patient is picking up dead animals and putting them in boxes and carrying them around. Patient also lies down on the train tracks."

Brandon Hayes sought treatment of his own accord several weeks later, but his hospitalization was cut short when he was arrested.

A troubling cycle

One of Hayes' charges, which refers to defacing historic landmarks, is a felony that prompted his higher bond.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office filed the charges hoping to move Hayes into mandated psychiatric treatment. Moore also pointed to the defendant's "long pattern of threatening behavior." 

He said the best outcome would be for Hayes to be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, then sent to the state's hospital for the criminally insane until doctors deemed his competency restored. But his mom is afraid he might "never come out" and his attorney said the process can become a frustrating cycle without a clear end date. 

With the threat of the ongoing coronavirus crisis also looming large for jails and prisons nationwide, the attorney asked a judge last week to release Hayes from his bond obligation.

She tried to get him back into inpatient treatment, like the hospital where he was staying before his arrest, but couldn't find an open bed. Instead, Hayes will live with his mom — the court has placed him on house arrest — and receive outpatient treatment that includes regular home visits.

If he fails to attend the meetings or otherwise doesn't adhere to the program, he'll go right back to jail.

Email Lea Skene at