Days after female public defenders hit Cook County sheriff’s and public defender’s offices with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment at county jail facilities, a group of female Cook County correctional officers have filed a similar complaint against Sheriff Tom Dart.
Correctional officers Sdahrie Howard, Denise Hobbs and Ellenor Altman filed a class action Nov. 10 in Chicago federal court against the county and sheriff, saying they and women like them who guard and supervise pre-trial detainees “are chronically subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.” Accusing Dart of being unable to remedy the problem over at least two years, the women say many deputies fear the situation “will escalate to the point of rape or, worse, result in fatalities.”
The complaint is similar to a Nov. 8 action in which female assistant public defenders and law clerks said the county is responsible for how they “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 correctional officers’ complaint said their male counterparts are “rarely, if ever, subjected to” the conditions they allege, which includes being made to work around “male detainees who: routinely expose their genitalia to plaintiffs and other members of the class; brazenly masturbate in front of them, including, at times, aiming ejaculations at them; grope and grab them; subject them to sexually degrading insults and slurs; and threaten them with sexual violence.”
At best, they said, Dart’s office “has exhibited reckless indifference for the rights of female correctional officers.” They cited a Chicago Sun-Times article in which the office’s chief policy director, Cara Smith, said sexual assaults of female jail staff are “something that happens in custodial environments, period.” They also quoted Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli - a defendant in the Nov. 8 complaint - as decrying the conditions and saying detainee conduct is a “crisis” and a “daily occurrence.”
The complaint said several hundred women work as correctional officers assigned to the county jail. Each of the named plaintiffs said they filed one or more incident reports regarding detainee conduct in 2016 or 2017, but remain subjected to the alleged conditions. They also said in many cases the harassment is so extreme women are discouraged from filing reports or advocating for protection.
The women alleged remarks from male supervisors and administrators indicating detainees’ behavior is an expected workplace condition or that they are adequately compensated for being subjected to such conduct, and in some cases said they faced threats of adverse action if they sought legal aid or filed a lawsuit.
The complaint also outlines steps Dart and the county could take to remedy the problem, such as training on how to address harassment or changing the conditions that give detainees the opportunity to repeat the behavior through means such as exposure-control jumpsuits, isolation of repeat harassers, physical restraints and counseling for traumatized deputies.
Formal allegations include a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and federal equal protection rights as well as the Illinois Civil Rights Act. In addition to class certification and a jury trial, the women want the court to force the sheriff’s office to implement policies to deter the continued harassment, including appointing an independent monitor to oversee adoption of such practices and procedures. They also seek monetary damages and legal fees.
Representing the deputies, and putative class attorney, is the Chicago firm of Willenson Law LLC.