A lawsuit against Cook County, Illinois is forcing a discussion on how to protect female public defenders from sexual harassment when they visit clients in courthouse detention facilities and jails.
In 2016, Crystal Brown was meeting with a client held in lockup at the Cook County courthouse to discuss his case when she was confronted with what she calls an all-too-common problem for female assistant public defenders in Chicago and the female clerks that work with them.
Another detainee held in the same holding area stood behind Brown's client and started masturbating at her. When she tried to move away, the man began shouting vulgar and misogynistic things at her, including that he wanted to have sex with her.
The scene was described in a lawsuit that Brown and other women have brought against Cook County, contending the Sheriff's Department and their own office have refused to take the problem seriously, and speaks to larger questions of how to protect women who visit and work in such facilities from sexual harassment.
On May 3, the women asked the court for class certification, which would allow them to officially act on behalf of all the female APDs and clerks in the office — more than 300 women in total — and not just on behalf of the ones who wanted to put their names to the suit.
The women argue that the frequent masturbation attacks they have to contend with have resulted in a hostile work environment, and interfere with their ability to properly represent their clients.
“[Assistant public defenders] represent some of society's most vulnerable members,” the women say in their complaint. “The work is grueling and their caseloads are heavy, but they are almost uniformly driven by their love of the important work they do.
“However, as a result of a toxic work environment caused and perpetuated by Defendants in concert, they are forced to regularly endure heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job, maybe permanently.”
The suit, filed in 2017, names Cook County, Public Defender Amy Campinelli, who heads the county's public defender program, and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who is responsible for the pretrial detention facilities where the clients in question are held.
The county and other parties have denied all allegations. Counsel for the defendants and the women did not respond to a request for comment.
The suit is not the first to claim that prisons and other facilities have dropped the ball in combating harassment, but often those cases are brought by guards.
In 2016, the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida agreed to pay $20 million to settle claims by female guards that the facility had not taken steps to protect them from sexual harassment by inmates, including catcalls, rape threats and masturbation attacks.
In 2019, a facility in Iowa was ordered to pay $2 million to a guard who had faced retaliation when she complained of similar behavior.
And guards in other places have also taken legal action, including in a case filed in 2017 by women in Cook County who work as guards or in other roles in detention facilities.
For public defenders, however, sexual harassment by detainees — sometimes including their own clients — involves an additional layer of complication, given that these attorneys are appointed to ensure that defendants' constitutional right to counsel is met.
In court documents, the women say that the problems in Cook County began after the Sheriff's Department in 2014 lowered the penalties for indecent exposure by detainees. In 2015, some detainees formed a gang called “savage life” that awarded points for masturbation attacks on visitors and staff.
In some cases, attorneys have been subjected to harassment while meeting in windowed interview rooms, with groups of detainees masturbating behind the glass, according to the complaint.
In others, the women have had to face such attacks while they meet with clients in courthouses' lockup areas that also house up to 20 other detainees, the complaint says.
And in some cases, female attorneys have also been attacked by their own clients, court documents say, including one incident when a client masturbated while locked in a small room at the jail with no internal alarm system and ejaculated on her leg before someone came to let her out.
All told, over 180 incidents have been reported, but the assistant public defenders bringing suit say that most women don't file formal reports, and that the public defender's office discourages them.
Despite relaying many of the incidents to their supervisors, the women say that the public defender's office, like the Sheriff's Department, did not take steps to protect them. Instead, they claim, the issue was treated as just part of the job, and something that the women needed to toughen up and deal with.
The women were also faced with the difficult prospect of pressing charges against the offenders, including sometimes their own clients, because they had no other way to deal with the problem. Even when women did decide to press charges, the sheriff discouraged them from filing reports, the women claim.
The suit argues that the problem is not unfixable, however, if the Sheriff's Department takes proper action. The women report that since a judge in the case issued a preliminary order in 2017 for the sheriff to make certain changes, the number of incidents has gone down.
Those changes include having detainees with a history of sexually inappropriate behavior wear jumpsuits designed to thwart masturbation and indecent exposure and that when they are handcuffed, it will be with their hands behind their backs.
The order also required the sheriff to assign a staff member to each courthouse lockup area and to not discourage assistant public defenders and law clerks who want to file criminal complaints.
The defenders want the court to order the facilities to make permanent changes, though the complaint does not spell out specific policies they hope to see, and also to award damages for the harm they have already suffered.
Generally, there are many steps corrections facilities can take to protect attorneys, according to John S. Shaffer, a criminal justice consultant who worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for 31 years.
While not familiar with the Cook County facilities, Schaffer told Law360 that setting up video conference rooms can be one way of addressing safety concerns without requiring more staffing, which can be expensive.
In addition, he said, choosing to prosecute offenders can also help by acting as a deterrent, especially since offenders may wind up with a sex offender label if convicted.
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