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Illinois: $380,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Over Jail Prisoner Assaulted by Other Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

On April 23, 2017, Cook County, Illinois paid $380,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman using the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” who alleged she was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted by other prisoners during her 27-day stay at the Cook County jail, while guards and medical staff ignored her complaints.

Doe was 26 years old when she was booked into the Cook County jail on drug charges; she was also awaiting extradition to another state. Instead of being housed in minimum-security with other non-violent pretrial detainees, Doe, a law school student, was placed in unit K-2, a maximum-security cellblock. There, other prisoners immediately began referring to her as “snow bunny,” “cracker” and “Pocahontas,” and made comments about her being “cute and white.”

Soon, prisoner Britany Watson – who had been convicted of murder and was rumored to be HIV positive – approached Doe offering to give her commissary items in exchange for sexual favors. Watson said Doe could be “gay for the stay,” but she declined.

Doe reported the sexual and racial harassment to jail guard Karen Salgado, who told her that the other prisoners would say things but not do anything to her, and refused to take action. The next day, Watson forcibly sexually assaulted Doe in the showers while two other prisoners stood watch. The sexual assault included digital penetration and groping, and Watson fled when Doe began screaming.

Guard Michelle Strickland noticed Doe cowering under a staircase and asked her what was wrong. She reported the sexual assault to Strickland, who seemed irritated and said she would “take care of it.” However, Strickland did not file a report about the assault or take any steps to protect Doe.

After Strickland returned to her office, Watson and three other prisoners grabbed Doe, took her under the stairs and held her down while they kicked her repeatedly in the face, stomach and shoulders. Despite a crowd of prisoners gathering to watch the brutal beating, the guards did not intervene; instead, they told the other prisoners that Doe was “snitching” on them.

The pattern continued, with Doe being beaten and guards refusing to provide her with medical treatment or protect her. Her complaints were even ignored by the jail’s PREA coordinator, who was a licensed clinical social worker, and a doctor and mental health specialist, both of whom were employed by the jail’s medical provider, Cermak Health Services. Doe suffered a broken nose, broken tooth and a deep cut on her thigh inflicted by a sharp object.

Fortunately Doe had two prominent sisters, a physician and a human rights attorney. One of them visited Doe the day after the sexual assault. Doe’s sisters conferred about the matter, then called the jail. The staff member who responded used a fake name and was extremely rude, patronizing and dismissive of the sisters’ concerns. They continued to advocate for Doe.

Doe was eventually transferred to a jail in another state, where she received medical care for her injuries. Aided by prominent Chicago attorney Kathleen T. Zeller, Doe filed a federal civil rights suit against Cook County, four guards, the physician, the mental health specialist, the PREA coordinator and Watson. The defendants tried to cover up their actions by allegedly falsifying documents before agreeing to settle the case; the $380,000 settlement covered all of the defendants except Watson. See: Doe v. Dart, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:14-cv-08296. 

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Related legal case

Doe v. Dart