A talented teenage basketball player unable to post bond on a low-level burglary charge ended up ingesting screws, needles, a 4-inch piece of metal and other objects while behind bars, leading the jail to spend more than $1 million in medical care on him.
Authorities at Cook County Jail told the Chicago Tribune that the case of 17-year-old Lamont Cathey highlights the hazards of institutionalizing impressionable youths, some of whom have mental health issues.
"This case to me is a perfect example of the failure of the criminal justice system," the jail's executive director, Cara Smith, told the newspaper. "It's been a crushingly sad and very frustrating case."
The newspaper says the sheriff's office moved the Chicago teen into a newer section of the jail last week and that his condition appears to have improved.
Cathey has been in the jail for 16 months following his arrest for allegedly stealing money from a pizzeria safe, after he couldn't post a $5,000 cash bond.
It's only when a plea deal that was supposed to let him attend a boot camp fell through last year that he began swallowing objects. They included a thumbtack, strips of leather and even parts of a medical device he had dismantled.
"He's literally eating the jail," Smith said.
He's been hospitalized two dozen times and had several operations to remove objects from his digestive tract.
Cathey piled up other charges while at the jail, including allegedly shoving a guard. That could mean time in state prison.
Cathey's brother, Kenneth Barber, said he had never displayed signs of depression before he was jailed. He had been enrolled in an alternative charter high school, where basketball coaches called the 6-foot-8 Cathey "Big Boy."
His lawyers have said in court filings that he urgently needs psychiatric treatment. That isn't extraordinary for Cook County Jail, where nearly a quarter of its 8,000 inmates are mentally ill, say jail officials, who have long clamored for more mental-health resources.
"Lamont requires structured, long-term psychiatric residential treatment," one of the defense filings said.
Cathey had been in trouble before. He was arrested more than a dozen times as a juvenile, though none of those arrests led to convictions.
A cousin, Charles Drake, said Cathey always wanted to do well in life.
"He's got a good heart," he said. "He just got some wrong turns."