A half-dozen employees of the Cook County Public Defender’s office have filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, claiming county officials have done nothing to protect them from inmates who masturbate in front of them during visits to the jail and courtroom holding cells.
The federal lawsuit describes almost daily encounters in which detainees masturbate and leer at the lawyers during meetings with clients – a phenomenon the complainants say has been on the rise at the jail dating back to 2015.
The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of women working for the office, including more than 200 of 400 staff attorneys.
Public defenders’ “work is grueling and their caseloads are heavy, but they are almost uniformly driven by their love of the important work they do,” the lawsuit reads.
“However, as a result of the toxic work environment caused and perpetuated by the defendants in concert, they are forced to regularly endure heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job, maybe permanently.”
A spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans declined comment Wednesday, citing state Supreme Court rules barring judges from commenting on pending cases.
Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s deputy, Lester Finkle, said in a statement that the office had been working with the sheriff and judges to come up with a solution for two years.
“The Public Defender’s paramount concern is preserving the safety and well-being of her staff, and she will continue working in good faith with other stakeholders to find a viable solution,” Finkle wrote, adding that the office had not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit.
Last month, Campanelli, who is named in the lawsuit, decried the rising number of instances where her staff are subjected to inmates exposing themselves as a crisis, and called on Sheriff Tom Dart and Evans to find a solution.
Campanelli last week ordered all staff not to enter courtroom lockups, where defendants routinely expose themselves and masturbate in front of female attorneys and clerks.
The lawsuit states that the practice is unfair to clients, and female attorneys, who can’t meet privately with detainees at the jail, and the plaintiffs also take issue with other steps that have been taken to try to stop the harassment.
Campanelli has said she wants extra sheriff’s officers on hand in courtroom lockups, a solution Dart has said costs him $40,000 per week in overtime. Dart, also named in the lawsuit, has backed legislation that would have upped the criminal charges associated with indecent exposure cases that take place in a jail or prison, but the bill stalled because of opposition from Campanelli.