The former director of the California prison system says the level of sexual abuse suffered by female employees in the Cook County jail is unlike anything she has ever seen before, and she blames the policies and practices of Sheriff Tom Dart.
That opinion from Jeanne Woodford was filed in court Friday as part of an effort to get class-action status in a lawsuit against the county and the sheriff. Woodford worked for the California Department of Corrections for nearly 30 years and was hired by the plaintiffs as an expert witness in the lawsuit.
Friday’s 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.
If approved, the class-action lawsuit would include about 2,000 women who have worked for the Cook County Sheriff in the jail or criminal courthouse. The lawsuit claims the failure of the county and the sheriff to “curtail” sexual harassment and exhibitionist masturbation by inmates violates federal and state civil rights laws.
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.”
But Woodford, the former director of the California Director of Corrections, says those specialized jumpsuits are just one example of the many ways the sheriff has failed to protect female employees.
“[The sheriff] has acted unreasonably in its efforts to clothe inmates who masturbate or engage in indecent exposure. … Indeed, its efforts have amounted to four years of wheel-spinning,” Woodford wrote.
Woodford details several other failures in the sheriff’s response to sexual harassment by detainees, including poor training, inexperienced management, an ineffective disciplinary process, and a failure to actually enforce sanctions against inmates.
“The practices of the Cook County Jail have been inconsistent for the past five years or longer with prevailing correctional practices and often with its own written policies,” Woodford writes. “Because of these inadequate practices, women employees are exposed to pervasive sexual harassment throughout the Jail at levels far beyond any other correctional institution with which I am familiar.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.