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While County Struggles To Serve Mentally Ill Inmates, One Is "Literally Eating The Jail"

By Rachel Cromidas in News on May 26, 2015 5:55PM

Photo credit: Gary Eckstein

A Chicago teen jailed for an alleged low-level burglary a year ago has been "literally eating the jail," authorities say, costing the city over a $1 million in medical expenses over his propensity to ingest bits of metal, leather and scrap materials around the Cook County detention facility.

The teen's experiences in the jail underscore the problems Cook County authorities have faced both in trying to manage the overcrowded jail and in taking care of inmates with mental illnesses. Lamont Cathey was a promising basketball player for West Englewood, the Chicago Tribune reports, until he was accused of stealing money from a pizzeria safe over a year ago.

But he has been waiting over a year for a trial, thanks in part to a failed plea deal, new charges that he has attacked people in the jail and the county's overall dreadful backlog of cases.

With no clear end to his incarceration in sight, Cathey allegedly began eating "anything he could get his hands on" around his cell, from screws and needles to the leather strips used as restraints, according to jail officials. Cathey also allegedly tore apart a $50,000 hospital bed, a hospital room camera and a medical device, and devoured the metal inside. Officials say as a result they have spent over $1 million on his medical care, which is more than what's been spent on any other inmate in recent history. He has also been hospitalized at least two dozen times since his arrest 16 months ago and endured multiple operations to remove foreign objects lodged in his digestive system. "He's literally eating the jail," Cara Smith, the jail's executive director, said in an interview. "This case to me is a perfect example of the failure of the criminal justice system."

On a given day, jail official estimate that between 25 and 30 percent of inmates have at least one mental illness.

The jail has long been considered an unsafe but inevitable home for some of the city's poorest and most vulnerable mentally ill who have committed various violent or nonviolent felony offenses. As Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in an op-ed last year, "mental illness has effectively been criminalized in Illinois." Cuts in mental health and social services around the state have only exacerbated the problem, according to advocates.

While county officials have been working in recent years to reduce the jail's burgeoning population, for example by making it easier for non-violent offenders to "bond out" or wait at home for their subsequent court dates by paying a fee of several hundred or thousand dollars or agreeing to wear an electronic ankle monitor.

In Cathey's case, it appears he was initially unable to afford to get out of jail, though his charges were relatively minor. He was later released on electronic home monitoring but was soon forced to return to the jail after he allegedly cut off his ankle bracelet. Since his first arrest, Cathey has been accused of threatening and shoving a jail guard and holding on to a contraband catheter needle—incidents which will likely add to the prison time he faces.

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, the psychologist who was recently appointed the jail's new executive director, told the Tribune that being in jail likely exacerbated Cathey's erratic behaviors. Describing him as "an impressionable young man," she said Cathey relied on the jail "to parent him." Typically 17-year-olds are charged as adults in Cook County.

Cathey faced enormous challenges growing up in West Englewood, according to family members and his former basketball coach, from entrenched poverty to gang involvement. He also struggled with depression and has threatened suicide while jailed.