ASSISTANT PUBLIC DEFENDERS FILE SEXUAL HARASSMENT SUIT OVER MASTURBATING INMATES
A half- dozen employees of the Cook County Public Defender’s office have filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, claiming county officials have done nothing to protect them from inmates who masturbate in front of them during visits to the jail and courtroom holding cells.
The federal lawsuit describes almost daily encounters in which detainees masturbate and leer at the lawyers during meetings with clients — a phenomenon the complainants say has been on the rise at the jail dating back to 2015.
The lawsuit seeks class- action status on behalf of women working for the office, including more than 200 of 400 staff attorneys.
Public defenders’ “work is grueling, and their caseloads are heavy, but they are almost uniformly driven by their love of the important work they do,” the lawsuit reads.
“However, as a result of the tox- ic work environment caused and perpetuated by the defendants in concert, they are forced to regularly endure heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job, maybe permanently.”
A spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans declined comment Wednesday, citing state Supreme Court rules barring judges from commenting on pending cases.
Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s deputy, Lester Finkle, said Wednesday that the office had not yet received an official copy of the lawsuit.
Last month, Campanelli, who is named in the lawsuit, decried the rising number of instances where her staff are subjected to inmates exposing themselves as a crisis and called on Sheriff Tom Dart and Evans to find a solution.
Campanelli last week ordered all staff not to enter courtroom lockups, where defendants routinely expose themselves and masturbate in front of female attorneys and clerks.
The lawsuit states that the practice is unfair to clients, and female attorneys, who can’t meet privately with detainees at the jail, and the plaintiffs also take issue with other steps that have been taken to try to stop the harassment.
Campanelli has said she wants extra sheriff ’s officers on hand in courtroom lockups, a solution Dart has said costs him $ 40,000 per week in overtime. Dart, also named in the lawsuit, has backed legislation that would have upped the criminal charges associated with indecent exposure cases that take place in a jail or prison, but the bill stalled because of opposition from Campanelli.
In an email, Dart’s policy chief, Cara Smith, said the sheriff would continue to try to address the “despicable behavior” by detainees. More than 200 detainees have been charged with indecent exposure since January, including 20 complaints filed by public defenders.
“We are hopeful the [ Defender’s] office will work with us to find solutions to this problem, instead of impeding proposed solutions we put forth,” Smith said. “No woman or employee should have to endure sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Mirroring grumbling by some female staff at the busy criminal court building at 26th Street and California, the lawsuit also criticizes Campanelli for barring the sheriff ’s officers from shackling all inmates during meetings with attorneys and faults Dart’s August decision to pull back additional officers who staffed lockup areas.
Cook County Jail SUN- TIMES FILE PHOTO