Constitutional Law

Female Chicago-area public defenders file equal-protection suit over masturbating inmates

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Six Chicago-area assistant public defenders have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that claims they have been subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of inmates who masturbate in front of them at the jail and courtroom lockups in Cook County.

The would-be class action alleges violations of the equal protection clause and the Illinois Gender Violence Act. The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin covered the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Chicago federal court.

The “toxic work environment” forces female assistant public defenders and female law clerks “to regularly endure heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job, maybe permanently,” the suit says. Some employees have quit and some have taken less desirable assignments to avoid the harassment, the suit says.

The plaintiffs have also filed class-action charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, according to a press release by the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Robin Potter and Nieves Bolaño.

The incidents of exposure, masturbation, verbal threats and sex-based aggression have become more frequent in the last two years, according to the suit. Some inmates have grabbed female assistant public defenders by the legs and buttocks, and one inmate “masturbated and emitted bodily fluids” on an assistant PD.

A group of detainees known as “Savage Life” organized and directed the assaults, awarding points for each incident of assault or masturbation, the suit says.

The defendants include Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. They are accused of allowing the conduct to continue.

Early this year, the sheriff began handcuffing detainees in courthouse lockups, but Campanelli objected and the practice was discontinued, according to the suit. Also in early 2017, Dart required the detainees to wear special jumpsuits that restrict access to the groin area, but the practice was discontinued after detainees used microwave ovens to burn the jumpsuits, the suit says.

The suit also claims Dart began rewarding inmates with pizza if they went 30 days without a sexual assault or masturbation incident. But inmates weren’t eligible unless they had a prior exposure or sexual assault, incentivizing inmates to commit one incident of masturbation to enter that program. Dart’s office “strongly denied that allegation,” according to the Tribune.

Campanelli had written Dart about the problem in March, and followed up by banning public defenders from visiting courtroom lockups. Dart’s chief policy officer, Cara Smith, previously said that there wasn’t enough money to keep assigning deputies to the lockup areas.

Recently, the sheriff began assigning civilian employees to the lockups and the results were good, Smith told the Tribune. She also said noted the specially designed jumpsuits and said they were still being used.

Campanelli’s deputy, Lester Finkle, said in a statement that Campanelli is working to find a viable solution to the problem, according to the Sun-Times. Smith said more than 200 detainees have been charged with indecent exposure since January, and the sheriff is trying to address the “despicable” inmate behavior.

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