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More than 500 women ask to join sex harassment suit against Cook County Jail, Sheriff Dart’s office

“I’m blown away by their courage,” said Marni Willenson, a civil rights lawyer, of the female correctional officers who signed their names and shared their stories in the lawsuit.

Attorney Marni Willenson holds a hefty sheaf of court documents at a news conference Thursday, July 8, 2021, where she discussed the 529 women who are seeking to join a 2017 federal lawsuit. The women are current and former jail correctional officers alleging that nothing was done about their complaints that inmates were sexually harassing them.
Attorney Marni Willenson holds a hefty sheaf of court documents at a news conference Thursday, where she discussed the 529 women who are seeking to join a 2017 federal lawsuit. The women are current and former jail correctional officers alleging that nothing was done about their complaints that inmates were sexually harassing them.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Hundreds of women are trying to join a sexual harassment lawsuit against Cook County and Sheriff Tom Dart that alleges officials didn’t do enough to stop inmates from masturbating in front of the women, who worked at the jail.

Current and former Cook County correctional officers and other workers filed suit in 2017 in U.S. District Court. At a news conference Thursday, attorneys touted their success in getting 529 women to individually join in the suit after a petition to declare the suit a class action was rejected by a federal judge.

The women are identified in the lawsuit and shared some of their stories with the court — and at the news conference.

“I’m blown away by their courage,” said Marni Willenson, a civil rights lawyer.

In the four years since the suit was filed, both the women who were harassed said that neither Dart nor Cook County made the necessary changes to protect female workers at Cook County Jail.

“These women have provided critical services, medical care, security, counseling, have endured the worst forms of harassment, only to have the sheriff’s office and county turn their backs on them,” said Caryn Lederer, a lawyer representing the women.

Lederer said that many women had male supervisors and colleagues brush off female workers’ complaints.

“They’re laughed at, told it’s their fault, that they must get used to it or, ‘What do you expect, you work in a jail,’” Lederer said.

In one incident, five inmates ejaculated in front of Bonnie Parker, a retired sheriff’s employee, she alleged at the news conference. Two of those inmates ejaculated on her uniform, she said.

“Men showing their penises, ejaculating and cat-calling took me to a dark place at one time in my career,” said Parker, who worked at Cook County Jail for 28 years. “They should be stopped and disciplined so that it can become a deterrent for the next set of guys that want to do it.”

Like many others at the news conference, Parker spoke directly to Dart.

“If his wife, daughter or any female that he knew worked at that jail for 30 days endured this type of behavior, would he be more considerate in providing a safe work environment for them?” Parker said. “We are his employees, and he should be more concerned for our safety.”

A spokesman for Dart reiterated the office’s earlier statements about the suit Thursday, saying officials have taken multiple steps to prevent and deter detainees from harassing workers at the jail, including utilizing specialized jumpsuits for detainees, increasing disciplinary consequences, filing new criminal charges against offenders.

“The Sheriff’s Office works every day to prevent and deter those ordered into its custody from engaging in acts of violence or sexual misconduct toward staff and others and has done so long before this lawsuit was filed nearly four years ago,” the spokesman said. “The safety of all persons who enter the Jail is the highest priority for the Sheriff’s Office, and we will continue to defend our record on supporting our staff and aggressively addressing incidents of sexual misconduct by detained individuals.”

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly will decide Friday if these additional women will be added to the case. Then, Willenson anticipates Kennelly will hold “bellwether cases” — sample trials that provide a sense of what the future trials hold.

“If other facilities can control the behavior of their detainees, inmates or convicted prisoners, then the sheriff of Cook County can do the same thing,” said Willenson.

She anticipates five to 10 trials will be held this year.

Barbara Unseld, who has worked for 30 years at the jail, became emotional while recounting allegations that inmates masturbated in front of her on many occasions.

“It’s hard to relive that moment,” said Unseld. “The conditions for the women in jail are unsafe. And unless this problem is rectified by the sheriff, we have women that are walking away from this job, walking away from their careers because they can’t take it.”

A separate lawsuit that made similar allegations filed by 534 public defenders and law clerks was settled for $14 million last year.

Contributing: Matthew Hendrickson