Cook County Jail sexual harassment suit grows to include more than 500 women

July 8, 2021

by M&S Staff

Case is now believed to include the largest number of individual sexual harassment victims in history.

CHICAGO (July 8, 2021) — 529 sexual harassment victims on the staff of Cook County Jail, Leighton Courthouse and Cook County Health joined a lawsuit against Cook County and Sheriff Tom Dart on Wednesday. The complaint details graphic sexual harassment incidents and a lack of protection by management for women employees at the jail, courthouse, and medical facilities.

“With the addition of today’s complaints, we now represent 547 women who experienced sexual misconduct at work in Cook County. This is now believed to be the largest case of individual sexual harassment victims filed in history,” said Marni Willenson an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “An unprecedented number of women have come forward to talk about their damaging experiences working for Cook County, and they deserve accountability, including a resolution for the victims and an immediate change in the Jail’s procedures to protect employees from harassment.”

In May 2021, two victims who experienced sexual harassment as Cook County Jail employees called on Sheriff Dart and Cook County to reach a fair resolution in their lawsuit — which has been ongoing since 2017 — and to implement policies protecting employees from indecent exposure and masturbation.

Today, other women joined that call. Bonnie Parker, who worked at the Jail for almost 30 years, joined the lawsuit to help women still enduring the abuse. Parker endured masturbation attacks sometimes as often as daily. On multiple occasions, detainees masturbated at her or exposed their penises in concert. Detainees frequently ejaculated. On one occasion, she was checking identification cards and a detainee placed his penis on the counter and ejaculated at her.

“I know what I went through. No one should experience that. I don’t think people understand how disturbing it is to come to work and day after day see penises, masturbation, take that kind of abuse,” said Ms. Parker. ”It messes with your psyche. It changes who you are. You can’t just go home and be a wife, mother, grandmother, a normal person after experiencing this day after day.”

Barbara Unseld, who also had a 30-year career at the Jail and recently retired, is participating because, like so many others, she said, she has been a victim of the County’s failed practices. In one of her assignments, Ms. Unseld monitored holding cells from a control room. The detainees would press the intercom button, and after hearing a woman’s voice, would expose their penises and masturbate into the camera.

“To go to work knowing this will happen to you, again and again, affects you. What we have been going through has affected our personal lives, our family lives,” said Unseld. “The conditions for women in the Jail are just unsafe. Unless this problem is rectified, who knows what will happen next? Women should not have to walk away from good jobs because the sheriff won’t accept responsibility for running the Jail properly.”

“The working conditions at the Jail and the Courthouse are intolerable. These women, who already work under dangerous conditions, should not also be assaulted every time they go work. The continuing lack of response from the Sheriff’s Office is a slap in the face to the hundreds of women who have come forward to have their voices heard and demand a change in their working conditions,” said attorney Noelle

Brennan. “When more than 500 women sue their employer, there is a real problem. The Sheriff’s excuse that he can’t do more doesn’t fly. He must do more. That is his job.”

Cook County settled more than a year ago with a group of women public defenders who filed a nearly identical lawsuit in 2017. There has been no progress in resolving this lawsuit, however, pursued by more than 500 women who work a wide range of jobs at the Jail (and the adjoining Leighton Courthouse and Cook County Health facilities)— including correctional officers, courtroom deputies, social workers, law librarians, paramedics, nurses, therapists, and other health care employees.

“Cook County’s starkly different approach to these two lawsuits — one by women lawyers and one by women who work day-in and day-out inside the Jail — is unjust,” said attorney Caryn Lederer. “The County paid to compensate women public defenders who were sexually harassed in meetings and in court but refuses to compensate the women providing daily medical care and safety services exposed to the same harassment. The public defenders did not sign up to be sexually harassed at work — and neither did the officers, nurses, paramedics, social workers, or other women who work for the County.”

The additional complaint filed Wednesday paints a devastating picture of the harmful environment management and supervisors at the Jail allowed to continue for years. The accounts of masturbation attacks, indecent exposure, and threats of sexual violence are harrowing.

“Women who work at the Jail will not be silenced. They will not be stopped by the County’s procedural shenanigans. Today, women proved that even if the courthouse door is closed for the case to proceed as a class action, they will still rise up and advance their claims,” said Ellen Eardley, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “This is one of those historic civil rights moments where people band together to make change. These women are saying enough is enough. They demand action.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Noelle Brennan of Noelle Brennan & Associates, Ltd., Marni Willenson of Willenson Law, LLC, Caryn Lederer of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd., Shelly Kulwin of Kulwin, Masciopinto & Kulwin, LLP and Ellen Eardley and Joshua Karsh of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC.

The new complaint filed on July 7, 2021 can be found here.