Cook County Must Face Claims Over Inmates’ Lewd Behavior

CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge refused to dismiss lawsuits from female public defenders and correctional officers who claim Cook County, Illinois, inmates have been exposing themselves and masturbating in front of them, a problem they say was exacerbated by a program rewarding detainees with pizza for not engaging in such behavior.

jail, cell, inmate, incarceration, prison, barsWith a few procedural exceptions, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled Tuesday that the plaintiffs in three related cases against Cook County officials could proceed with their claims, and rejected motions to have them thrown out of court.

In November 2017, several female public defenders who work at the Cook County jail came forward and claimed that their working conditions had become intolerable because of the pervasive problem of inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of public defenders, law clerks, correctional officers, court interpreters, deputies and other female workers.

Named defendants included Amy Campanelli, public defender of Cook County, and Sheriff Thomas Dart, who work in one of the largest jail systems in the United States.

The lawsuits claim county officials not only failed to protect women who visit the jails for their job, but worsened the problem.

According to the women, Dart even created a program to reward serial harassers with pizza parties if they went 30 days without masturbating in front of the women.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, as a result of this program, detainees who had not previously engaged in such behavior were incentivized to do so in order to be eligible for a pizza reward thirty days later,” Judge Kennelly wrote in a 42-page opinion.

Dart had argued that the court should throw out the women’s equal protection claims because they had failed to show that men working within the jail system had received greater protections or that he had intended to discriminate against them because of their sex.

But Kennelly found that the women had done enough to support their claims at this point in the proceedings with specific facts, including allegations that Dart had created solutions to the problem only to reverse them.

That allegedly included handcuffing inmates and having them wear custom jumpsuits to prevent inmates from exposing themselves or masturbating. Dart abandoned the solutions because Campanelli had objected to the use of handcuffs, and some inmates had burned the jumpsuits using microwave ovens, according to court records.

“These factual allegations, taken together and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, are sufficient to support a plausible inference of discriminatory effect as well as a plausible inference that Dart has intentionally failed to act appropriately to address the detainees’ behavior toward female [assistant public defenders] because of their sex,” Kennelly wrote, specifically referring to the case of plaintiff Crystal Brown.

Dart has proposed legislation that would hit inmates with harsher penalties for sexual misconduct. Since Jan. 1, 2017 there have been more than 600 incidents of indecent exposure and lewd conduct involving inmates, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department said in April. Dart has also complained about conditions within the jail system of 7,500 inmates and says it has become overwhelmed with mentally ill detainees.

Even though the judge rejected the majority of the county’s motions, Kennelly granted Cook County’s motion to dismiss a Title VII claim in the case of plaintiff Sdahrie Howard, a correctional officer, and granted in part Dart and Cook County’s motions in the case of Diana Caloca, a court interpreter.

Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said the department respected the court’s ruling and was committed to protecting the safety of people who work with detainees. She added that there is “not a shred of truth to this outrageous allegation” that the sheriff had offered detainees pizza as an incentive.

“We will continue to work diligently to protect our employees from the despicable and criminal behavior of certain detainees and hold those guilty of such behavior accountable to the fullest extent that we are able to,” Ansari wrote in an emailed statement.

The public defender’s officer did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

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