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Detainees regularly expose themselves to female public defenders in Chicago, suit alleges

Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- A lawsuit on behalf of female Cook County assistant public defenders alleged this week that authorities have not done enough to stop male detainees from exposing themselves, masturbating and threatening the attorneys in courtroom lockups and the county jail.

The female attorneys' proposed class-action suit against their boss, Public Defender Amy Campanelli, as well as Sheriff Tom Dart, alleges that their inaction has resulted in the sexual harassment only worsening over the last two years.

The problem is so pervasive that one of the female assistant public defenders who brought the suit said she believed "most if not all" of the estimated 200 women who work as attorneys or interns in the office had experienced the abuse.

The women must endure "a toxic work environment" that forces them to witness "heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job," said the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court. Some transferred to less desirable assignments -- despite the negative impact on their careers -- or quit entirely, the suit said.

Attempts by Dart and Campanelli to curb the misconduct were either ineffective or short-lived, according to the suit, which claimed that at one point the sheriff rewarded detainees with a pizza for going 30 days without exposing themselves or masturbating. The sheriff's office, however, strongly denied that allegation.

In the course of their daily work, assistant public defenders confer with many of their indigent clients while they're being held in crowded lockups behind courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Court Building as well as other courthouses in Chicago and its suburbs.

During the discussions, other detainees routinely expose themselves or masturbate -- often while making verbal threats -- in front of the female attorneys, the suit alleged.

On occasion, the women have faced multiple incidents in the same day, the suit charged.

Six veteran assistant public defenders brought the suit against Campanelli, Dart, Cook County and the public defender's office seeking a court order to stop the problem and unspecified monetary damages. In addition, the suit revealed, 16 female assistant public defenders have filed discrimination charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The lawsuit paints a graphic picture of the atmosphere in the courtroom lockups and in two of the maximum-security divisions of the jail.


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