Cook County poised to settle lawsuit for $31 million over jail inmates exposing themselves to and groping female officers and other workers

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Hundreds of female employees of the Cook County Jail and courts who alleged leaders did not do enough to stop male detainees from exposing themselves, masturbating and threatening them are in line for a county settlement worth a total $31 million.

The settlement is up for a vote in Cook County’s Finance Committee Wednesday. If it passes there, it will move to the county board on Thursday.

A group of female correctional officers, rehab workers, law librarians and medical personnel who worked at the Cook County jail first filed suit in 2017, alleging they were “chronically subjected to a sexually hostile work environment” because male detainees “routinely expose their genitalia … brazenly masturbate in front of them … grope and grab them; subject them to sexually degrading insults and slurs; and threaten them with sexual violence.”

The initial suit said a group of detainees formed the “Savage Life” gang with a primary objective of “orchestrat(ing) sexually threatening behavior” towards female workers.

They alleged the sheriff had failed to take steps to stop or correct it, and it had made the “terms and conditions of employment” for women different than for men who work in those same titles.

“The damages include severe mental anguish and other emotional distress; headaches, stomach upset, and other physical symptoms of emotional distress; nightmares; sexual dysfunction; fear and anguish when going to work; burnout; depletion of sick leave; and fear of reprimand for pursuing their complaints,” the suit said.

Hundreds of women sought to join the suit. As of Sept. 1, that list stood at 561. All but one had accepted their settlement offers, according to court records.

Workers in the county public defenders’ office brought a similar suit in 2017 related to the behavior of detainees in the crowded lockups behind courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Court Building and other courthouses throughout the county. That suit settled in 2020 for $14 million.

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Attorneys representing the sheriff’s office in early court filings acknowledged there were more than 350 reported incidents of detainees exposing themselves or masturbating in 2016, and nearly 120 in the first three months of 2017.

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In an emailed statement sent Monday, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart said the office was prepared for trial but wanted to avoid further costs and agreed to settle. Spokesman Matthew Walberg said the office has been “incredibly aggressive in its efforts to stop such outrageous behavior and support correctional staff,” but that “too often people charged with serious and violent crimes are intent on causing harm when in custody.”

Dart’s office “implemented innovative and comprehensive measures to stop individuals in custody who are intent on masturbating ­— or exposing themselves — to staff,” the statement continued, including “specialized jumpsuits, new cuffing procedures, increased disciplinary consequences, filing new criminal charges against offenders, and many unsuccessful efforts to pass state laws that would result in meaningful consequences for this despicable behavior.”

“The Sheriff’s Office has also created the Office of Compliance to ensure continued enforcement of the policies and procedures we have put in place to reduce this behavior,” Walberg said.

Commissioners will be voting on $2.3 million of the total $31 million amount this week.

A lawyer for the women who sued said the county agreed to reforms as well as monetary damages.

“The 561 women in this case who have fought so long and so hard to be treated with dignity and be allowed to work in an environment free of this type of pernicious sexual harassment are relieved more than anything else that finally, after five long years, the CCSO has agreed to an array of remedial measures, under outside oversight, to stop this behavior and ensure a safe work environment moving forward, and to compensate these women monetarily for the harm caused to them,” said the statement sent by one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Shelly Kulwin from the law firm Kulwin, Masciopinto & Kulwin. “These same women only hope that the CCSO continues to stand by these measures and does not abandon enforcement of them in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Lastly, we disagree in the strongest terms that the CCSO effectively protected our clients prior to and during the pendency of this lawsuit.”

Also scheduled for a vote this week: a $9.75 million settlement to the estate of Shania Williams and her baby daughter. According to county finance documents, Williams’ estate alleged negligence against the county’s Stroger Hospital for wrongful death involving a failure to treat preeclampsia and to deliver her baby on time.

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September 20, 2022 at 03:53PM

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