Hundreds of women employed at a legal office in Cook County, Illinois have filed a lawsuit against the head attorney and county sheriff, claiming they refused to stop sexual assaults by detainees.
According to the lawsuit, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart instituted a programme that rewarded repeat abusers with pizza if they stopped.
The women concerned have said that the programme only increased the problem, while the sheriff's office has claimed the 'pizza rewards' programme never took place.
A press release by Chicago-based employment law firm Potter Bolaños LLC stated that female staff at the public defender's office suffer 'daily abuses' from detainees, including masturbation in their presence, 'verbal threats laden with explicit sexual violence, exposure of detainees' genitals, and physical attacks'.
These incidents occur in holding areas in each of the courthouses in Cook County as well as the Cook County jail, according to court documents.
Cook County Jail. Credit: PA
The lawsuit, filed this Wednesday, alleges that Dart and Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli have been aware of the 'offensive and dangerous conduct by detainees' for at least the past two years but have allowed it to continue.
The women are looking for an injunction to stop the abuse so they can 'safely and effectively' do their jobs.
In a letter Campanelli sent to Dart this past March, the public defender referred to the 'daily assaults' as a 'crisis' that affects 'the safety of the workplace' for women in the public defender's office.
While she wrote that an 'immediate solution is necessary' to the crisis, the women's lawsuit said that nothing has yet been done to help the situation and stop the abuse.
Dart and Campanelli have instead been accused of reducing measures which were effective in lowering abuse, such as cuffing detainees, making them wear jumpsuits and having lockup areas monitored.
Dart tried to solve the problem earlier this year by making detainees wear special jumpsuits to prevent them from reaching their penises.
However, according to the lawsuit, this practice was stopped after a group of detainees burned their jumpsuits using a microwave.
According to the lawsuit, Dart then instituted a programme that rewarded 'serial masturbators' with pizza if they went 30 days without an incident of sexual assault or masturbation.
As detainees who never exposed themselves weren't eligible to receive the reward, the programme is said to have had a reverse effect, leading to an 'increase of exposure incidents'.
Lester Finkle, chief of staff for the public defender's office, said that the public defender's office has been collaborating with the sheriff's office and the chief judge for the past two years to develop solutions to stop this behaviour from occurring.
"However, the Public Defender cannot support legislation or measures that significantly increase penalties for detainees who engage in this behavior or that subject detainees to inhumane practices," Finkle said.
"The Public Defender's paramount concern is preserving the safety and well-being of her staff, and she will continue working in good faith with other stakeholders to find a viable solution."