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HSPRD Clients Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment, Masturbation Attacks at Cook County Jail

On May 27, 2021, clients Denise Hobbs and Esther Jones, two women who are among the hundreds who experienced sexual harassment as Cook County Jail employees, held a press conference at HSPRD calling for Sheriff Tom Dart to reach a fair resolution in their lawsuit and to implement polices protecting employees from indecent exposure and masturbation. The women are represented by HSPRD attorneys Caryn C. Lederer, Emily Brown, Karen Villagomez, and paralegal Katie Freund, along with Marni Willenson of Willenson Law, LLC, Noelle Brennan of Noelle Brennan & Associates, Ltd., Shelly Kulwin of Kulwin, Masciopinto & Kulwin, LLP and Ellen Eardley, Joshua Karsh, and Cyrus Mehri of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC.

Sexual harassment victims filed the lawsuit in 2017, at the same time that a group of women public defenders filed a similar class action suit against the same parties. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Board of Commissioners settled the public defenders’ case more than a year ago–but the Jail staff are still waiting for their own resolution, which they hope will improve conditions in the Jail.

Denise Hobbs, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and who had worked in the Corrections Department since 2007, initiated the lawsuit with several other women because of the intolerable conditions she experienced at the Cook County Jail.

“One detainee came up to me during lock-up and said ‘you make my dick hard.’ I reported this to my supervisors and one told me, ‘that’s a compliment,’” said Ms. Hobbs. “Another time I filed a disciplinary report after a detainee masturbated at me but the only response I got was a male officer who had read the report coming up to me and saying, ‘You still got it.’”

“I could easily encounter someone doing an act of sexual harassment each day. It was like this was a norm in the department that you were supposed to get used to,” said Ms. Hobbs. “I’m pursuing this lawsuit in the interests of the other women who are still working there in the unsupportive and toxic environment I experienced.”

The hundreds of women involved in the two lawsuits have all been subjected to extreme sexual harassment by male detainees at the jail and courthouse, including masturbation attacks, an epidemic of indecent exposure, and a barrage of sexualized epithets, sexual vulgarities, and threats of sexual violence. The women say that the County and Sheriffs’ Office have failed to take this harassment seriously, have failed to take meaningful steps to prevent it, and that no women—in any setting—should be subjected to masturbation or sexual threats and sexually harassing comments in the workplace. But, unlike the public defenders’ lawsuit, the Sheriff and County appealed the Jail staff’s class action status, forcing women to individually join the case to pursue their sexual harassment claims.  

At the press conference, attorneys for the female Jail staff dispelled false rumors spreading through the Jail that the case is over. The attorneys clarified that the case is, in fact, still headed toward trial, and that Jail staff who have not formally joined the case must do that if they want to be to be included in the case and pursue sexual harassment claims. The attorneys are in the process of contacting well over 1,000 women who work at the Jail and Courthouse to notify them. The judge presiding over the case recently set a July 7, 2021 deadline for women to join the lawsuit.

The number of women joining the suit is ultimately expected to exceed 500 and could be hundreds more. The women work in a wide range of jobs at the Jail (and the adjoining Leighton Courthouse and Cook County Health facilities)—including as correctional officers, courtroom deputies, inmate services workers, law librarians, paramedics, nurses, therapists, and other health care employees at the Cook County Jail.

Watch ABC7 News Report HERE

Read the Chicago Sun Times Report HERE

Read the Complaint HERE

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