Attorneys for female correctional officers are scheduled to ask a judge to approve class-action status on Friday in a lawsuit over sexual harassment and exhibitionist masturbation by Cook County inmates.
The attorneys are seeking to represent about 2,000 women who have worked for the Cook County Sheriff in the jail or criminal courthouse, saying the failure of the county and the sheriff to “curtail inmate sexual harassment” violates federal and state civil rights laws.
Friday’s expected motion for class certification is the latest step in multiple lawsuits brought by female guards describing “egregious” sexual harassment by inmates — including detainees masturbating in front of female guards, groping them and threatening them with sexual violence.
A 2017 lawsuit claims the abuse has made the jail and courthouse “an objectively abusive, hostile, oppressive, and dangerous workplace” for female employees. And they say the sheriff has “tolerated and fostered this harassment, exhibiting deliberate indifference.”
In legal filings, Sheriff Tom Dart’s office has acknowledged that “some female employees ... have experienced incidents of sexual misconduct by detainees,” however the sheriff denies tolerating or allowing the abuse.
On Thursday, the sheriff’s Chief Policy Officer Cara Smith said the office has done everything they can to combat the “disgraceful” behavior, taking “swift action” whenever a guard is the victim of abuse.
“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our staff and of anyone who comes into the jail compound,” Smith said. “And so we have tried all sorts of, you know, what I believe are very creative ways of dealing with this behavior, from restricting visits, to specialized jumpsuits that restrict a defendant's access to their genitals, to criminally charging them.”
However, Smith said, the county does not have the proper “tools” to deal with the issue.
“To a defendant who is facing many many many years in prison, a Class A misdemeanor is meaningless,” Smith said of the potential charges against inmates for the sexual harassment.
That’s why the sheriff is pushing state legislation that would allow them to take away from inmates credit for time-served or good behavior if the jail’s disciplinary board sustains charges of assault or battery on a peace officer or public indecency against them.
The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice recently called that legislation “concerning,” because it “would give correctional officers in county jail unchecked, unreviewable authority to make people serve longer prison sentences.”
Smith said she couldn’t disagree more with that criticism.
“I mean, this is a very, very serious issue. We have tried everything to deal with this behavior,” Smith said. “We feel very strongly that we need this tool to hold these defendants accountable and to, you know, create the safest work environment we can for our staff.”
The issue of sexual exposure and masturbation directed toward female guards became pervasive in Cook County starting around 2015 according to court filings. Since then, there have been more than 300 such documented incidents per year. Some female officers “are exposed to masturbating detainees every day or almost every day” according to the lawsuit.
“Exhibitionist masturbation by detainees is so prevalent that the detainees have a term for it: they call it ‘clapping,’” reads one federal complaint.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.