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Former Cook County correctional officers speak out about inmates sexually harassing them, say supervisors ignored concerns

Lawyers for two correctional officers are urging Sheriff Tom Dart’s office and Cook County government to settle a 2017 federal lawsuit concerning the abuse allegations.

Attorney Marni Willenson looks on as retired correctional officer Denise Hobbs describes alleged sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual threats she endured from inmates while working at the Cook County Jail,
Attorney Marni Willenson looks on as former Cook County Correctional officer Denise Hobbs speaks Thursday about being sexually harassed by inmates in the Cook County Jail.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It often began at the very start of Denise Hobbs’ shift — a Cook County Jail inmate exposing himself to her.

And when Hobbs would complain to a supervisor, she was told nothing could be done because the inmate was in his own cell, she said. On another occasion, she said she was told: “It was a compliment.”

After 12 years working in the jail as a correctional officer, Hobbs retired in 2019.

“I had to put my health and well-being first,” she said Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time about her experiences, accompanied by her lawyers at a downtown office. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it.”

Hobbs and nine other current and former Cook County correctional officers filed suit in 2017 in U.S. District Court against the Cook County sheriff’s office and the county. They allege, among other things, that the defendants “have tolerated and fostered this harassment, exhibiting deliberate indifference to it.”

Hobbs’ attorneys are urging the sheriff’s office and the county to resolve the case — much as they did last year when Cook County commissioners approved a $14 million payment to end a lawsuit brought by Cook County assistant public defenders who claimed similar harassment in the jail.

“We are here today to call upon the Cook County sheriff and the government of Cook County to accept responsibility for the pervasive and disturbing sexual harassment of women working at Cook County Jail by inmates in detention there,” said Marni Willenson, one of Hobbs’ attorneys. “For more than five years, correctional officers at the jail … have been organizing around this issue and demanding a safer place, where they are not dehumanized by masturbation attacks and threats of sexual violence.”

A representative from Cook County could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“Safety within the Cook County Jail for all persons who enter the facility is the highest priority for the Cook County sheriff’s office,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “The office works every day to prevent and deter those ordered into its custody from engaging in any acts of violence or sexual misconduct toward staff and others and has done so well before this lawsuit was filed almost four years ago.”

“Specifically, when it comes to persons detained in the jail intent on masturbating in front of staff, the office has deployed for years numerous innovative and thorough approaches to prevent and deter them: from specialized jumpsuits and new cuffing procedures to increasing jail discipline and filing new criminal charges to attempting to pass state laws to strengthen the office’s ability to protect staff. In fact, the CCSO has reduced the frequency of reported sexual misconduct-related incidents by roughly three-quarters since December 2016.”

A federal appeals court recently stripped the correctional officers’ lawsuit of class-action status, meaning the current and former employees will have to individually join the lawsuit.

Hobbs said that before she began working at the jail, she was trained to find “shanks” — or homemade knives — how to defend herself and how to come to the aid of other correctional staff.

“I was told there could be a day when I would walk in there and not walk out due to the dangers,” she said.

But she said she was never trained how to deal with sexual harassment.

“We can do the job. We do, do the job. This harassment is something we should not have to experience on a daily basis to do our job,” Hobbs said.

Esther Jones, a former correctional officer who is also part of the lawsuit, stood beside Hobbs Thursday. She also retired in 2019 after working with the department for 26 years.

“Today, when I think about what happened in my workplace, I feel like I lost my humanity,” she said.