Press Release: Women Working at Cook County Jail Seek Class Action Status

May 7, 2019

by M&S Staff

CHICAGO, Ill. — A new filing in federal court Friday documents a pattern of sexual harassment at the County Jail directed at women working in the Jail and Sheriff Tom Dart’s failure to take action to address it. The proposed class action represents about two thousand women employed as correctional officers, sheriff deputies, paramedics, nurses, and in other jobs who reported pervasive sexual harassment by inmates that includes indecent exposure, exhibitionist masturbation, groping and threats of sexual violence.

This proposed class action has been led by Chicago law firms – Willenson Law, LLC; Noelle Brennan & Associates; Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym; Kulwin, Masciopinto, and Kulwin – and Washington D.C. based Mehri & Skalet. The D.C. firm won a similar lawsuit against a Florida federal prison for $20 million dollars and injunctive relief. In November 2017, the U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly issued a preliminary injunction.

“We are proud to represent almost 400 women who are taking a stand to hold the sheriff accountable for criminal sexual misconduct by inmates at the Jail. Our clients are heroic women responsible for the safety and security of the Jail and for providing health care to inmates,” said Marni Willenson, co-counsel. “All women working in these critical public safety positions should be able to do their jobs without being degraded and sexually harassed.”

“It’s simply not true that nothing can be done to deal with this issue. For years, the Sheriff’s Office has claimed that they ‘lack the tools’ to deal with this issue, but that’s a cop out. As our expert Jeanne Woodford explained in her reports, the solutions are not even difficult. The California numbers show that inmate harassment can be severely curtailed. The level of reported sexual misconduct against Cook County Jail employees dropped 30-50 percent as a result of the basic steps ordered by the court’s injunction. The numbers are still too high, but if we obtain the additional relief we are seeking, it will fall even further,” said Noelle Brennan, co-counsel.

Public data on sexual misconduct incidents is available for the California state prison system. The rate of reported sexual misconduct incidents against employees at the Cook County Jail was four to seven times greater than in the California prisons. However, the women in the Cook County lawsuit allege that incidents at Cook County Jail are severely underreported because Sheriff’s Office allowed the inmates to escape any real consequences for sexual misconduct. When women reported the disturbing behavior to their superiors, they often were told it was part of the job.

Since the 2017 injunction, women continue to face sexual harassment at the jail as the county and sheriff’s office have refused to take adequate steps to curtail the extreme harassment. These steps include:

  • Operate a functioning disciplinary system that holds inmates accountable for misbehavior and imposes stronger sanctions on repeat offenders.
  • Invest in products other institutions use like specially designed exposure control uniforms and hand mitts to combat masturbation and indecent exposure.
  • Have a zero-tolerance policy against inmate sexual harassment.
  • Have a protocol to respond to inmate indecent exposure, attempted assaults, and verbal harassment and train employees on it.

Case Information

Howard v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office
Case No. 17- cv-8146
United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division