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Female sheriff’s officers sue Dart over masturbating jail inmates

Friday, November 10, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Andy Grimm

Three female corrections officers at the Cook County Jail have filed a lawsuit claiming that Sheriff Tom Dart has not done enough to protect them from inmates who threaten and grope female guards and “brazenly masturbate” in front of them.

A lawyer for veteran corrections officers Sdahrie Howard, Denise Hobbs and Ellenor Altman said the trio and their fellow female officers who work in the jail complex have had to deal almost daily with incidents in which inmates threaten and harass them.

The lawsuit also alleges supervisors have discouraged the women from filing complaints about the behavior, telling them witnessing the behavior is “part of the job.”

“They really do fear for their safety,” said attorney Marni Willenson, who represents the three officers. “Women have a right to go to work without looking over their shoulder fearing they’re going to be raped or aggressively exposed to genitalia.”

The lawsuit, which seeks class status on behalf of hundreds of women who work as corrections officers, was filed Friday in U.S. District Court — nearly two years after the women filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and, coincidentally, just days after women lawyers at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office filed a similar lawsuit, alleging female staff also are subject to similar harassment from inmates.

Cara Smith, Dart’s chief of policy, said Friday that the sheriff’s office has tried to deal with the increasing number of incidents at the jail for about two years, and that a variety of measures undertaken to stop the behavior have failed.

Since January, 222 detainees have been charged with indecent exposure, including 144 cases where the victims were jail personnel, Smith said. Dart backed legislation that would increase the penalties for indecent exposure committed inside jails and prisons, but blames Campanelli’s office for stalling the bill.

“We will continue to try these sort of Band Aid operational fixes to deal with the problem,” Smith said. “But the reality is that the tools we have to address this behavior are grossly inefficient to deal with the task.”

Willenson agreed.

“There’s no dispute there,” she said. “Whatever they’re doing, it’s not working.”

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