For three months, Lamont Cathey has been stuck in a suburban hospital, caught in a bizarre bureaucratic standoff.
Facing theft-related and escape charges, he is in the custody of Cook County authorities, handcuffed to a bed at Loyola University Medical Center under the constant watch of three sheriff’s deputies and a hospital staffer.
Loyola says there’s no medical reason to keep him there, but the hospital can’t just show him the door because he’s in the sheriff’s custody.
Yet Cermak Health Services, which provides medical care to county jail detainees, won’t take him. Nor will county-run Stroger Hospital. And sheriff’s officials don’t want to move him from Loyola without someone to attend to his medical needs.
In desperation, Loyola sued last week in hopes of forcing his removal from the hospital, where it says he has run up more than $500,000 in medical expenses in just the last three months. The hospital wants the county to reimburse it for those expenses.
The lawsuit does not identify the detainee, but the Tribune has learned that it is Cathey, the subject of a front-page Tribune story three years ago about his constant swallowing of anything he could get his hands on in the county jail: screws, needles, a thumbtack, a 4-inch piece of metal. By the time the story ran in May 2015, the county said it had spent at least $1 million on his medical care.
At a hearing Tuesday in Circuit Court, a judge is scheduled to consider Loyola’s request that he order the county to immediately remove Cathey from the hospital. Loyola argues he’s essentially trespassing on their property. The suit names Cook County and Sheriff Tom Dart as defendants.
The public defender’s office, which represents the 22-year-old Cathey against pending criminal charges that he possessed a stolen motor vehicle and escaped from electronic monitoring, confirmed he is the detainee at the center of the unusual lawsuit. In addition, key details from the suit line up with Cathey’s state and county records.
“The fact that neither of (the hospitals) wants him is pretty appalling to me,” said Public Defender Amy Campanelli, who declined to speak about the criminal case against Cathey but noted that her office is keeping a close eye on the lawsuit. “I have no opinion on where he should be, but someone needs to take care of my client and everybody cannot pass the buck.”
The unusual case symbolizes the predicament faced by the criminal justice system in dealing with inmates with mental health issues.
Dart himself has long spoken out about how jails and prisons across the country have become dumping grounds for the mentally ill. In a speech at the City Club of Chicago in 2015, he, in fact, referred to Cathey without specifically naming him.
“We have a guy right now that has cost us — has cost all the people in this room — close to a million dollars in health bills because he constantly eats the jail,” Dart said. “Across the country, the easy thing to do was cut mental health services, and they’ve done it. So people don’t get better. They don’t get treatment. They go to jails and prisons and emergency rooms.”
The standoff with Cathey dates to April 10, when he was discharged from Dixon Correctional Center, where he had been sent for a parole violation.
On that same day, Cook County sheriff’s deputies took him into custody at the prison to face the stolen vehicle and escape charges.
The sheriff’s office intended to take him by private ambulance to Cermak, located in the county jail complex near the main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue, according to the hospital’s lawsuit. But on the way there, Cermak officials refused to admit Cathey and ordered that he be taken to Loyola’s emergency room, the suit said.
At Loyola, located in west suburban Maywood, doctors determined that Cathey had no medical reason to be admitted to the hospital, technically discharging him on April 11, the suit says.
But the county refused to take him from the hospital, the suit alleges. Saying it had little choice, Loyola transferred Cathey from the emergency room to a private room on April 13.
Since Cathey is in the custody of the sheriff, he cannot leave Loyola on his own.
He has been handcuffed to a bed ever since — under the watchful eyes of the three deputies each shift around the clock, according to the lawsuit.
With Cathey’s “history of self-harm,” as the hospital put it, Loyola’s staff also provides 24-hour, in-room supervision of him.
“This supervision is accomplished by a rotating team of patient care technicians whose sole job is to remain in the hospital room and observe the detainee at all times,” the suit says.
While Loyola said it has repeatedly demanded that the county remove Cathey from the hospital, he underwent treatment in the hospital for three weeks in June for reasons the suit did not explain.
According to Loyola, Cermak at first declined to take in Cathey because he was being fed intravenously as a result of what the suit called “a temporary condition caused by a self-inflicted wound.”
But after Cathey began eating again, Cermak still refused to admit him, saying internal guidelines prohibited it from administering the opioid pain medication he was then being given by Loyola, the suit says.
Cermak demanded that he be weaned to a different pain medication, according to the suit. Loyola was not “clinically able” to make the substitutions demanded by Cermak, the suit says, though it contended the pain medication being administered to Cathey “can be safely and effectively managed in any outpatient or home-based setting.”
Still, Cermak continues to refuse to accept Cathey even though it has an inpatient psychiatric unit, unlike Loyola, according to the suit.
In the meantime, Cathey continues to act out, according to the lawsuit. On July 3, he physically assaulted a hospital security guard, the suit says. In addition, he threatened to both break the neck of his hospital-assigned “sitter” and to return to Loyola after his release to kill members of its medical staff, according to the suit.
In a telephone interview, Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer, said the sheriff is “ready and willing” to remove the detainee from Loyola and sees no reason why either Cermak or Stroger could not care for him.
But the sheriff’s office does not wield the power to make either county medical facility accept him, and until either one does so, the sheriff’s hands are tied, Smith said.
In an emailed statement, Frank Shuftan, spokesman for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the county has been working with Loyola since April “to determine when and if this detainee is able to be safely transferred to a lower level of care because any transfer of care must be in the best interest of the safety of the patient.”
Shuftan declined to comment further on the lawsuit.
A spokeswoman for the county’s Health and Hospitals System, which operates Cermak and Stroger, declined to comment Monday.
Cathey was once an up-and-coming basketball prospect, the Tribune reported in 2015. Family said then that he showed no signs of mental health issues until he was arrested on a burglary charge and languished in Cook County Jail while unable to post a $5,000 bond.
He told a psychiatrist he planned to kill himself and began to eat whatever he could get his hands on. At one point, Cathey had swallowed so much metal that doctors couldn’t tell which items were newly ingested. He destroyed a hospital bed and a camera in his jail hospital room and even dismantled a medical device so he could swallow a metal piece inside, officials said.
In the 2015 Tribune story, jail officials said he had been hospitalized two dozen times in the nearly 16 months since his arrest and had multiple operations to remove objects from his digestive system. Adding to the expenses, the jail was forced to post a guard outside Cathey’s cell 24 hours a day to try to prevent him from further harming himself.
The troubling behavior apparently has continued at Loyola. County records show he told officers guarding him that he had swallowed a clamp for a catheter bag while nurses cleaned him.
Cathey is no doubt an unorthodox case — jail officials at the time said the $1 million spent on his medical care was more than any other inmate in recent history. But he is emblematic of a crisis facing Cook County Jail — and penal institutions across the country.
Smith estimates that mentally ill detainees make up about 28 percent of the jail’s population, currently at 6,177. Such detainees are three times more expensive to care for than the rest, according to the sheriff’s office.
In the meantime, Cathey remains trapped in one private hospital that doesn’t want him while two taxpayer-funded medical facilities oppose his admission.
“It’s a tragic, unique, complicated case,” Smith said. “We need to step outside of our traditional lanes and come together for a solution that benefits everyone under the umbrella of justice.”