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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.

One assistant public defender who pressed criminal charges against a detainee who masturbated in front of her last year later had to be in the same lockup with him several times, according to the lawsuit.

"On each such occasion the detainee yelled profanities and threats, including that he was going to 'beat the s--out of' her and 'motherf--ing kill' her," the suit said.

In addition, detainees have grabbed female assistant public defenders and law clerks by the legs or buttocks, the suit said.

Campanelli declined to comment Wednesday evening, saying she had not yet seen the lawsuit.

"The Public Defender has been working in collaboration for the past two years with the Sheriff and the Chief Judge to develop solutions to stop this behavior from occurring," the office said in a statement.

Last week, the office issued a blanket directive barring staffers from entering the lockup areas behind courtrooms, citing concerns for their personal safety, according to documents filed with the suit. Until further notice, assistant public defenders must request to speak to their clients in private rooms.

But the lawsuit blasted that effort, too, saying it keeps assistant public defenders from effectively doing their jobs.

Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Dart who also had not seen the lawsuit, said the sheriff's office has made a consistent effort to curb the detainees' misconduct, noting that deputies are victims as well when detainees expose themselves.

Adding more deputies to courtroom lockups was successful but not sustainable with the office facing a budget crunch, Smith said. In recent weeks, civilian employees of the sheriff's office have been posted in the lockups to deter the behavior, with good results, she said.

Authorities have tried multiple strategies to curb the misbehavior but all proved unsuccessful, the suit alleged.

For a short time earlier this year, detainees were handcuffed in the lockup behind courtrooms, decreasing the number of incidents, according to the suit. But Campanelli personally objected to the practice, according to the suit, and it was discontinued a short time later.

"The Public Defender cannot support legislation or measures that significantly increase penalties for detainees who engage in this behavior or that subject detainees to inhumane practices," the statement issued Wednesday by the office said.

Some detainees have also been required to wear specially built jumpsuits that restrict access to their groin area. The lawsuit alleged that the sheriff's office abandoned that strategy, but Smith said it is still in effect.

Several detainees were charged with arson earlier this year after setting fire to a pile of the restrictive jumpsuits.

Some of the female attorneys have filed criminal charges against the men, but that has not been an effective deterrent, either, according to the lawsuit. The charges are often dropped.

At least one female assistant public defender who filed such a charge faced retaliation for doing so, the suit said.

"Supervisors ... bad-mouthed and criticized her throughout the criminal court system for filing charges," the suit said.

Besides, a misdemeanor public indecency charge means little to a detainee potentially facing a long prison sentence for a felony, Smith said.

"They could care less," she said, "So we really lack sufficient tools to respond to this problem."

Detainees who are known to engage in such misbehavior are now brought to the courtroom separately, Smith said, and are prohibited from congregating with other detainees in the lockup.

But new incidents still spring up regularly, she said.

"Why do they do it? Because they can and because it creates chaos and it makes people uncomfortable," Smith said. "And mostly because there's not many tools we have to respond to it, and they spend far too long in our custody waiting for cases to be adjudicated."

(c)2017 Chicago Tribune

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