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Masturbating Cook County Jail inmates could cost taxpayers $2 million-plus in legal fees

It’s been dubbed an “extreme brand of workplace sexual harassment” by one state senator who sought increased penalties for the lewd behavior.

Sun-Times Media

Legal fees for cases relating to masturbating detainees at Cook County Jail could reach more than $2 million.

The Cook County Board’s Finance Committee on Wednesday will consider the latest $486,216.39 in fees and expenses for five cases brought by public defenders, sheriff’s officers and other female county employees exposed to the harassment. That comes on top of nearly $1.7 million the Board has already paid out.

It’s been dubbed an “extreme brand of workplace sexual harassment” by one state senator who sought increased penalties for the lewd behavior. The women subjected to it have written letters to county officials and filed lawsuits.

The problem got so bad a federal judge in 2017 ordered all Cook County jail detainees with a history of indecent exposure, masturbation or sexual misconduct to remain handcuffed “at all times” during courthouse visits.

That year, half a dozen employees of the Cook County Public Defender’s office filed a sexual harassment suit, saying the problem dated back to 2015. In the suit, they described frequent encounters with detainees who would masturbate, sexually harass or expose themselves to lawyers during meetings.

In addition, dozens of female sheriff’s officers filed suit against Sheriff Tom Dart in 2017 and last year, alleging that he hadn’t done enough to protect them from near daily encounters with detainees who would sexually harass and assault them.

The fees coming before the committee on Wednesday relate to five of the cases, brought by public defenders, jail guards, a court interpreter and a nurse.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, said the situation was sad for the victims and taxpayers.

“We shouldn’t have a situation where men or women are exposing themselves to public defenders, but on the financial end it’s crazy, too, because someone failed to create an environment that was favorable to detainees,” said Silvestri, a member of the Finance Committee.

A spokeswoman with the county’s State’s Attorney’s Office was not able to comment since the matter relates to pending litigation.

Cara Smith, Dart’s chief of policy, said the payment is for attorneys fees, and the cases have not been settled.

“We continue to vigorously defend against the allegations,” Smith said in a statement. “The payments are for attorneys fees. We have not seen the fee petitions and the State’s Attorney’s Office has approved the payments without our involvement. Also, the hourly rate is set by the State’s Attorney’s Office.”

The full County Board is scheduled to vote on the fees on Thursday.