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Pervasive Masturbation in Cook County Jail Spurs Class-action Suits, Injunction

by Monte McCoin

Two class-action lawsuits claim hundreds of women who work at the jail and courtroom lockups in Cook County, Illinois have been subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of policies maintained by Sheriff Tom Dart and Public Defender Amy Campanelli that allegedly tolerate prisoners who masturbate in front of female staff members.

On November 8, 2017, six attorneys employed with the public defender’s office in Cook County filed a class-action suit that alleges nearly 200 women working in courthouse lockup areas are forced to endure “daily abuses” from detainees, including masturbation in their presence, “verbal threats laden with explicit sexual violence, exposure of detainees’ genitals, and physical attacks.”

According to the complaint, at one point Sheriff Dart instituted a program that gave pizza to prisoners who masturbated in front of staff if they went 30 days without a second sexual misconduct incident. The lawsuit claims the program actually worsened the problem because detainees who hadn’t previously committed indecencies were incentivized to do so to qualify for a pizza reward for not doing it again.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly issued a preliminary injunction on November 28, 2017 that requires detainees who have a history of masturbation, indecent exposure or other sexual misconduct to wear handcuffs and special jumpsuits during courthouse visits. Dart and Campanelli agreed to the injunction, which will remain in effect while the suit is pending. See: Brown v. Cook County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. IL), Case No. 1:17-cv-08085.

A similar class-action was filed by five female Cook County guards on November 10, 2017. The lawsuit claims that Sheriff Dart allowed the jail to become “an objectively abusive and hostile workplace for women” due to his inaction to quell the pervasive problem of prisoners masturbating in front of women staff members.

According to the complaint, Dart and the Sheriff’s Office “intentionally failed to take measures reasonably calculated to end or mitigate that harassment of female correctional officers by male detainees, and their failure to enforce effective discipline against male detainees, protect female correctional officers, and eliminate or curtail sexual harassment against them has been so widespread and well-settled as to constitute the de facto equivalent of a formal policy of sex discrimination.”

See: Howard v. Cook County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. IL), Case No. 1:17-cv-08146. 

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Related legal case

Howard v. Cook County