Public Defenders

Judge allows class actions over inmate 'masturbation attacks' against public defenders and jail workers

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A federal judge in Chicago has certified class actions filed on behalf of female assistant public defenders, law clerks, correctional workers and medical employees who claim they were subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of “masturbation attacks” by jail inmates.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly certified the class actions for the Cook County, Illinois, employees in two separate rulings on Monday, the Chicago Tribune reports. The certification order in the public defender case is here, and the order in the jail worker case is here.

The assistant public defenders had alleged they encountered masturbating inmates when visiting the jail to meet with clients and in courtroom lockups. The jail and health workers said they were subjected to masturbating inmates at the jail, the courthouse and during medical treatment.

Both suits were filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Illinois employment law.

Kennelly said in the public defender case that, “contrary to the defendants’ repeated insinuations,” an employer can be liable for a hostile work environment created by a third party, including jail detainees.

The assistant public defenders’ suit alleged that a prison gang, known as Savage Life, had orchestrated the masturbation attacks. The gang awarded points for the incidents and raised the point level when the targets were assistant public defenders and law clerks.

The inmates masturbated while making eye contact with their targets and often made verbal threats and sometimes made physical contact with the victims, Kennelly wrote.

The assistant public defenders alleged the Cook County public defender and sheriff were aware of the attacks, but their response was inadequate. They say the attacks dramatically increased after the Cook County sheriff’s office revised its disciplinary charges code in late 2014 to downgrade the offense level for exposure and masturbation.

Then, when attacks spiked in the following months, the jail posted signs warning of punishment for multiple indecent exposures and held classes to encourage inmates to stop the onslaught. The attacks only increased, however. Special jumpsuits designed to restrict inmates’ ability to expose their genitals didn’t fully work, the suit said, and some violators didn’t even get the jumpsuits.

Handcuffing of inmates in courthouse lockups worked, but the policy was quickly rescinded after opposition from the Cook County public defender, the suit said. Increased staffing levels at the courthouse didn’t go far enough, and budget cuts ended the practice after a period of months.

A bill in the state legislature to increase criminal penalties for indecent exposure had support from the sheriff, but not the public defender.

The attacks waned in November 2017 after Kennelly ordered the handcuffing of inmates during courthouse visits if they had a history of masturbation, indecent exposure or other sexual misconduct.

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