Saying the Cook County detainees they represent are sexually harassing them, a group of female public defenders have lodged a federal class action complaint against the office that employs them, as well as the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, for allowing it to happen repeatedly.

Crystal Brown, Saran Crayton, Samantha Slonim, Celeste Addyman, Erika Knierim and Julie Hull filed their complaint Nov. 8 in Chicago, naming as defendants the county, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and her office and County Sheriff Tom Dart. The women said female law clerks and assistant public defenders are subject to a severe, pervasive hostile work environment.

“For at least two years, and continuing through the present,” the women said, female defenders and clerks “have been increasingly subjected to offensive incidents whereby male detainees in the courtroom lockups and Divisions 9 and 10 of the Cook County Jail … repeatedly exposed their penises, masturbated and engaged in other acts of sex-based aggression, verbal threats and harassment, and on an almost daily basis.”

The complaint said the defendants have been aware of the conditions for more than two years and have allowed it to continue. In that time, the incidents “have increased in frequency and severity.” In alleging violations of the federal Equal Protection Clause as well as the Illinois Gender Violence Act, the women say male defenders and clerks do not experience the same conduct from detainees. As a result, the women say they and others like them have suffered severe emotional and physical distress and trauma, noting some are driven from the profession.

Hull started working for the county in August 1986. Brown is the most recently hired named plaintiff, having started in May 2013. The others were hired in 2010. The county employs more than 400 public defenders, of whom more than 60 percent are female, according to the complaint.

The alleged behavior occurs in parts of courthouses where detainees wait for court proceedings and meet with their attorneys. Division 9 is a maximum security facility, while Division 10 is classified as supermax. Meeting with these clients is an essential job requirement, and the women say the county has provided no other place for in-person sessions that might prevent them from enduring the harassment.

According to the complaint, the holding areas routinely have 20 or more detainees at a time, and the harassment happens while the defenders are speaking with clients through bars, windows or doors. During those conversations, they say other detainees walk behind the clients, exposing their penises and often masturbating “while staring threateningly” at the defender or clerk. The complaint said a sheriff’s correctional officer has a view of the detainees as well as attorney-client consultation spaces.

They said the harassment doesn’t happen when they meet with clients at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building’s basement lockup because detainees there are handcuffed or shackled.

The complaint detail extensive media coverage of the situation as well as a variety of attempts Dart made to curtail the problem they said were undercut by Campanelli, who allegedly told the women “it is not my responsibility to keep you safe in the lockup and jail.”

In addition to class certification and a jury trial, the women want the court to appoint a monitor to implement policies and practices to stop the harassment. They also seek back pay and lost wages and benefits they say they suffered as a result of unlawful employment practices as well as compensatory and punitive damages and paid time off for class members who have suffered trauma or injury from the incidents.

Representing the women, and putative class attorneys, are Potters & Bolanos P.C., Chicago.

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