Masturbating Prisoners Are Making Life Hell For Female Lawyers, A New Lawsuit Claims

by Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Six female public defenders have filed a lawsuit after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment from male inmates at Cook Country Jail, which is a penitentiary in Chicago and the largest jail site in America. Detainees, including their clients, would repeatedly masturbate in front of the lawyers and verbalize sexual threats, among other traumatizing actions, the suit claims. Authorities at the jail allegedly made little effort to stop the sexual harassment, the plaintiffs said in their suit.

“It is difficult to communicate with clients when other inmates are exposing their genitals, erect or flaccid, masturbating, while either staring at us or yelling at us to get us to look,” wrote Crystal Brown in a separate complaint lodged at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month. “This conduct is offensive, degrading and unwelcome.” (Bustle was unable to reach the Cook County Public Defender's Office or Sheriff Dart for an immediate response.)

Brown is one of the six female plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which targets the women's bosses: Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart. The lawsuit claims Campanelli and Dart did not do enough to fix the toxic work environment that made it almost impossible for the lawyers to do their job.

Campanelli and Dart did address the unsafe situation — but were were at odds about how to solve it. In a letter to Dart, Campanelli went as far as to describe the situation as a crisis and said the workplace was both "traumatizing and debilitating" for the public defenders.

"Attorneys are reluctant to talk to clients for fear of being sexually or physically assaulted," she wrote. "It’s just become pervasive. We’ve tried everything."

The lawsuit alleges that one of these solutions gave inmates an incentive to expose their genitals. If detainees didn't expose themselves or masturbate publicly for 30 days, the sheriffs would reward them with pizza, the plaintiffs claimed in their suit. But people who weren't already exposing themselves or masturbating were excluded from the pizza deal, which incentivized them to begin doing so, the lawsuit states. (The sheriff's office has denied the pizza program has ever existed, according to Chicago Tribune criminal courts reporter Megan Crepeau.)

The problem seemed to improve when Dart added guards this spring to monitor courthouse lockups, Campanelli told the Chicago Sun-Times. But the sheriff's office removed the extra guards in August and the sexual harassment returned, she said. (Cara Smith, Dart's policy director, told local media the extra guards cost $40,000 a week in overtime, an unaffordable budget expenditure, so the sheriff replaced them with generally higher-ranking male employees who don't get overtime pay.)

Campanelli's office resisted suggestions by the sheriff's office for stronger punishment to deter offenders, Smith added, such as making indecent exposure a felony that would require lifetime registration as a sex offenders, Campanelli said that public defenders can't support such punitive legislation — especially against their own clients — on principle.

Indecent exposure appears to be more prevalent at Cook County Jail than any other jail, according the to the Illinois Public Defenders Association and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association. In the first 10 months of the year, 222 detainees in Cook County were charged with indecent exposure. While most of the victims worked at the jail, 29 of them were public defenders. The lawsuit claims many did not file complains out of fear of retaliation.

News of the lawsuit comes at a time when more women are coming forth with similar sexual harassment stories across various industries. On Thursday, The New York Times reported five women have accused comedian Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct, including allegedly non-consensually masturbating in front of them. (Louis C.K. has not publicly responded.) Meanwhile, four women accused journalist Mark Halperin, when he was at ABC News, of masturbating in front of another employee. Halperin denies the allegation.