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Female Corrections Officers Sue Cook County Over "Masturbating Inmates"

In a story that brings to mind one grotesque yet memorable scene from the classic thriller “Silence of the Lambs”, three female corrections officers in Cook County have filed a lawsuit claiming that Sheriff Tom Dart has ignored their complaints about grossly inappropriate behavior by male inmates who “brazenly masturbate” in front of female guards, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

A lawyer for veteran corrections officers Sdahrie Howard, Denise Hobbs and Ellenor Altman said the trio and their fellow female officers who work in the Cook County jail complex have had to deal almost daily with being threatened, harassed - and even sometimes groped.

Compounding problems for the women, supervisors have discouraged them from filing complaints about the behavior, telling them witnessing the behavior is “part of the job” - something they’ve also factored into their lawsuit.

“They really do fear for their safety,” said attorney Marni Willenson, who represents the three officers. “Women have a right to go to work without looking over their shoulder fearing they’re going to be raped or aggressively exposed to genitalia."

The lawsuit, which is seeking class action status, was filed Friday in US District Court, two years ago, the women filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. In a striking coincidence, the corrections officers’ filed their suit just days after female lawyers at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office filed a similar lawsuit making similar allegations about harassment from inmates.

Cara Smith, Sheriff Dart’s chief of policy, said Friday that the sheriff’s office has tried to deal with the increasing number of incidents at the jail for about two years, and that a variety of measures undertaken to stop the behavior have failed.

While the women allege that nothing has been done to protect them from the harassment, the Sun-Times reports that since January, 222 detainees have been charged with indecent exposure, including 144 cases where the victims were jail personnel. Dart backed legislation that would increase the penalties for indecent exposure committed inside jails and prisons, but says the bill stalled in the legislature.

“We will continue to try these sort of Band Aid operational fixes to deal with the problem,” Smith said. “But the reality is that the tools we have to address this behavior are grossly inefficient to deal with the task."

The lawyer representing the corrections officers agreed.

“There’s no dispute there,” she said. “Whatever they’re doing, it’s not working."

The question is, what can be done? Aside from relegating female officers to womens’ jails and prisons where the likelihood of sexual harassment would presumably be lower, solutions aside from filing more charges or throwing them into solitary confinement remain unclear.