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Female jail guards join public defenders in suing over sexual harassment by detainees

Friday, November 10, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau,

Female Cook County correctional officers have filed a federal lawsuit that alleges the sheriff has tolerated aggressive sexual harassment from male detainees at the county jail.

The litigation comes just days after a lawsuit from female Cook County assistant public defenders alleged similar misconduct by detainees in lockups at courthouses around the county as well as in two maximum-security divisions at the jail.

Both lawsuits allege authorities have not done enough to stop the detainees from exposing themselves, openly masturbating and threatening female employees.

The correctional officers’ lawsuit alleged that their work environment “is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult so severe and pervasive and so consistently traumatizing as to make the jail an objectively abusive and hostile workplace for women.”

The proposed class-action suit, filed Friday, seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order forcing Sheriff Tom Dart to take effective action to limit the harassment. The suit also asks that a judge appoint an independent monitor to oversee attempts by the sheriff’s office to stop the behavior.

“It is horrendous what (the officers) face,” Marni Willenson, one of the attorneys for the correctional officers, told the Chicago Tribune on Friday. “It’s totally intolerable, and the suggestion that nothing can be done about it is outrageous. That’s not the case. This is not how correctional institutions have to be run.”

Cara Smith, chief policy officer at the sheriff’s office, said her office continues to try to ensure a safe environment for its employees.

“We are going to continue to do all we can to address this criminal behavior by those in our custody,” she said. “The reality is that the tools we have to address this … are really insufficient.”

The lawsuit, though, alleged that other jails and prisons isolate repeat offenders, physically restrain them and train guards to respond effectively, among other measures.

The lawsuit names three female correctional officers, two of whom are currently assigned to an all-male maximum-security division, Smith confirmed. The third works in a case review unit and has no contact with detainees, Smith said.

Willenson said, however, that woman worked in Division 9, another all-male maximum-security unit, for three months last year.

Female jail guards approached attorneys with complaints more than two years ago, according to Willenson.

The same three women who brought Friday’s lawsuit had first raised the allegations in complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in early 2016. Last month, the agency did not take further action but notified the women of their right to sue — a common course of events in such situations, Willenson said.

The lawsuit alleged that female correctional officers have been discouraged from reporting the incidents or taking other action and that higher-ups have often been dismissive of their complaints.

Male supervisors have told women who complained about the sexual misconduct that it’s “just part of the job,” that they “signed up for” the behavior, “if you don’t like it, leave,” or “they’re locked up, what do you expect?” the suit alleged.

If true, such responses are “exceptionally unfortunate,” Smith said.

Smith said her office will continue to push for legislation that would upgrade public indecency in a correctional facility to a felony, a step she said would help deter sexual misconduct by detainees.

In addition, some detainees are required to wear special jumpsuits that restrict access to the groin area, Smith said.

But ultimately, Smith said, detainees linger in jail for too long awaiting trial, a problem for the entire criminal justice system and not one Dart can resolve on his own.

“Unfortunately, this behavior is not anything new,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s a problem that all correctional environments address.”

But, Willenson said, the environment at Cook County Jail is exceptionally toxic.

“You can walk into many other institutions and find female officers working there without being assaulted, groped, harassed or subjected to constant indecent exposure,” she said. “… You just couldn’t fathom that this could be allowed to occur.”

Twitter @crepeau

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