More than 500 current and former employees of the Cook County jail and courthouse are part of a complaint filed Wednesday that alleges sex discrimination.
The 529 women say they were subject to “vulgar” “and “offensive” misconduct by detainees, and that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office did not do enough to protect them from the constant harassment.
“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,” said Matt Walberg, press secretary for the sheriff.
Bonnie T. Parker is one of the plaintiffs. She was a correctional officer for 28 years before retiring in 2019.
Parker says she used to do intake at the jail, processing those newly arrived — fingerprinting, interviews – and taking them to lockup, or what she said was called the “bullpen.”
She says from 2014 on, that process became harder because the detainees harassed her.
“Guys kept calling, pulling out their penises, ejaculating, telling me about my body parts. And the supervisors, it became so frequent that they just ignored it and chalked it up to ‘well you work in a jail,’” she said.
It wasn’t always like this, she says. Officers used to be able to write up detainees who behaved this way.
“Previously, discipline would have been something like … (for) showing your body parts, pulling out and ejaculating or something like that — would have been probably at least 30 days in segregation, no visiting privileges, you wouldn’t be allowed to shop and by goodies,” she said.
But she says that changed. In recent years, correctional officers had to report harassment to their supervisors.
Parker says sometimes the incidents were brushed off. Other times, it would take weeks before a detainee was punished — and in the meantime, the harassment continued.
She compares that cycle to a child who continues to acts up if there aren’t consequences for poor behavior.
“They were not disciplined” she said of the detainees engaging in harassment. “And so the problem grew and grew and grew, like a snowball going downhill. I was harassed, the latter part of my career, five days a week.”
She said it took a mental toll on her. She felt like she had to wear a mask while at work, a mask that she’d take off when she moved into her other roles of mom, grandmother.
Parker was part of a 2017 lawsuit filed against the Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart that made similar allegations.
But an appellate court decertified it from class action status, prompting this new complaint, filed Wednesday, which includes the individual stories of 529 female jail employees.
Noelle Brennan is one of the attorneys on the case.
“This isn’t the type of thing that happens in every jail, so the idea that the sheriff has done everything that he can do just doesn’t hold water,” Brennan said. “There are certain things that could be done that are common sense, for instance: hand cuffing behind the back. Putting them in uniforms that are actually exposure-control uniforms.”
She also echoes Parker’s belief that those who engage in masturbation, cat-calling and other such behavior should face stronger discipline.
Dart is again pushing back.
His media office released a statement saying that the sheriff has enacted what it calls “innovative and comprehensive” measures to prevent and to deter detained persons from masturbating in front of staff.
That includes specialized jumpsuits, new cuffing procedures and increased disciplinary consequences — including filing criminal charges against offenders.
The sheriff’s office says that’s resulted in a roughly two-thirds drop of sexual misconduct related incidents since December 2016.
“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 statement from Walberg reads.
Public defenders in 2017 also filed a similar lawsuit, that likewise detailed how they were subject to harassment by those in jail.
In November, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved paying $14 million to settle that case.
Brennan says it’s notable that lawyers were treated differently than the jail employees.
She said the 529 plaintiffs represent a quarter of the approximately 2,000 women who could have been part of the case given that they’d worked in the jails and courts during the pertinent time period.
“The fact that you have one-quarter of your female staff willing to actually put their name on a complaint and sue their employer is unprecedented,” Brennan said. “As far as we know this is the largest individual sex harassment case ever brought.”
Though she’s retired, Parker says she’s worried about the correctional officers she left behind, some of whom she’d been responsible for training.
“You have to leave them in a hostile work environment, because that’s in essence what it becomes,” Parker said. “When you have to come to work and mentally know that when you open that door: Oh Lord, what’s going to happen today? Are they going to get me in the face? Is it going to be on the back of my pants and I’m not going to see it? I mean, is somebody just going to be, ‘Oh hey old lady look what I got for you’? You know, what am I going to endure today, Lord? That’s what I want to stop.”
The suit seeks a change in policy, as well as monetary damages.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky