Cook County Jail: Alleged Sexual Harassment and Racial Discrimination

Serious concerns of things going on behind the walls of the Cook County jail have been brought to the Defender’s attention. These concerns lay not only with the inmates awaiting release, but those currently being shuffled through the Cook County legal system and the guards as well. Discernment and inside rumblings among African-American Cook County Department of Corrections officers are the latest list of complaints at the fortress that sits on 26th and California.

As gun violence and drug distribution continues to consume Chicago streets—a high percentage of African-Americans make up the inmate admissions. According to a 2011, Loyola University study on Population Dynamics and the Characteristics of Inmates in Cook County jail, African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population. This is a high percentage compared to Caucasian inmates 12.7 percent and Hispanics at 20.7 percent. The disparity is obvious, because Cook County jail is the largest correctional facility in the U.S. As it relates to CCDC employees, over the years, at least 50 percent of the CCDC deputies have been African-Americans. But this picture has been gradually dwindling in the number of Black applicants being accepted into the Cook County Sheriff Academy for training.

The Cook County Corrections Academy has graduated 17 classes in the last 36 months and only an average of four to nine African-American Correctional officers have been hired by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. With the exception of the January 2013 class, only 14 officers were identified as Black graduates and the highest thus far that have graduated since then. Although approximately 24 African-American female officers were hired in the last 3 years, according to unnamed sources, the women officers are carrying the responsibility of guarding both the female and male inmates while their male counterparts are only guarding the men.

What does this mean as a CCDC female officer? This typically alters the playing field on the job with many female minority officers being sexually harassed by male inmates exposing themselves on various occasions. In order to protect the identity of the female officers that have stepped for- ward, we will refrain from revealing their names.

According to an incident report filed with the Labor Board by a CCDC officer, while a female officer was on duty on her “tier”, a detainee was standing by his door masturbating through the chuckhole in plain view of her. She ordered the detainee to stop immediately and informed her supervisor that she wanted to press charges on the incident—the inmate was issued an infraction report and remained in his area pending a hearing board decision.

Apparently, the incidents have gotten so bad that the Chief Union Steward was notified of these complaints by a fellow CCDC Sheriff. According to an internal memo written in early July 2015,a female sheriff wrote in detail about her colleagues continually being subjected to masturbation and several officers have been touched by these detainees. In the month of June, 2015, there were 17 reports on sexual misconduct. The memo continues to point out that up until July 2015, there have been 35 verbal threats and 12 battery assaults to staff within a 38-day period. In wrapping up, the memo asks the question of what kind of disciplinary action has been taken? And, how can there be stricter penalties for these types of actions?

In reaching out to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, Benjamin Breit, his response to these allegations states, “In 2015, there have been approximately 70 claims of inmates exposing themselves to Cook County jail officers. In each case, discipline has been rendered on the inmates and Cook County jail’s internal investigators work with the victims to pursue charges. If the officer decides that he or she wants the inmate charged, we work with the State’s Attorney’s Office to secure indecent exposure charges 100 percent of the time. There are no exceptions.”

As it pertains to the Cook County, Illinois SHERIFF’S ORDER, Prohibition of Discrimination and Harassment/Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Policy:

An excerpt of Section II, under POLICY, second paragraph: CCSO employees shall be informed of this Sheriff’s Order and are required to report any and all alleged incidents of discrimination, harassment/sexual harassment or retaliation. Any CCSO employee with knowledge of alleged discrimination, harassment/ sexual harassment or retaliation against another employee who does not report such knowledge is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

According to the women who brought this to our attention the sexual harassment by male inmates has not been taken seriously by management—a simple disciplinary ticket is written without any serious steps to reprimand the in- mate. The women sheriffs that we had an opportunity to interview who came forth with their frustrations have had a slow response from both the CCDC and the Local Teamsters Union 700. Since there have not been any legal filings in addition to the internal complaint, the officers have retained outside counsel to begin a deeper investigation based on these allegations.

Chicago attorney, Marnie Willenson has taken on the officer’s concerns and is currently investigating these inquiries before taking any legal action for alleged racial and gender discrimination. “This is still an investigation and this is what our investigation is suggesting. I don’t know them to be facts. This is information that has been shared with us and very disconcerting and it could give rise to legal claims,” Willenson said.

Willenson has raised two major concerns furthering her inquiries into the officer’s allegations. The first issue of concern is the working conditions that female officers are subjected to within the CCDC. Willenson said,“The female correctional officers are expected to work everywhere with the male inmates. But the male correctional officers do not work in the unit where the females are housed. There’s already an insufficient number of female officers so the end result is mandated overtime for the female correctional officers disproportionately.” Working mandated overtime is when an employee is forced to work overtime hours. And though federal overtime law under the FSLA does not prohibit employers from forcing employees to work mandatory overtime, still “It’s very disruptive to their personal lives,” says Willenson.

In addition, to the mandated overtime, the complaints of sexual harassment/sexual assault by inmates is still high on the list of priorities to address. “When there’s actual contact made by the male prisoners and there’s inadequate steps taken by management in the facility to do something about that. The response is totally inadequate and what our investigation shows the women are being told that on more than one occasion – that it’s ‘simply part of the job’.”

Just recently, Chicago Defender acquired a copy of the FOIA report from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, requesting the number of African-Americans hired from 2013-2015. As of August 2015, a total of 153 reported CCDC officers were hired and listed their race on the FOIA as “Black”. There were some obvious discrepancies on this listing, showing close to 30 white and Hispanic Correctional Officer Recruits.

Cook County Board Commissioner, Robert Steele (2nd District)

Cook County Board Commissioner, Robert Steele (2nd District)

Cook County Board Commissioner Robert Steele (2nd) District sits on the Criminal Justice Committee and feels that there is a serious disconnect in hiring practices of the Merit Board who works along with the Sheriff’s office. “You can’t get a class of people who qualify to look like the people that they are serving? Something is wrong with that –very wrong with that. I’m certainly interested in finding out why we can’t get people to pass the entrance test,” Steele said. “Is there a word on the test that they’re not saying when they go into the interviews? Here’s what we’re hear- ing most of the time–’It’s because they didn’t pass the psychological test’.”

In response to how many African-American officers were hired in the last three years, Cook County Sheriff’s Office did not give us a breakdown. Instead, they offered us an overall percentage of how many Black officers were employed out of 4,000 CCDC employees—43.15 percent and 42.2 percent are high ranking officers (sergeants, lieutenants, commanders) out of 322. However, the question remains—how many of these officers employed within the Cook County’s Department of Corrections have 10 years or more under their belt? With older officers gradually retiring from the Sheriff’s Department, the concern is the lack of diversity in the Sheriff’s Department recruitment campaign.

Although the hiring culture of the CCDC over several decades has been to employ family members in the workplace, it is not wavering against its stronghold tradition. The problem lies within the imbalance bias on job recruitment. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department assures their participation in local job fairs and the CCDC website as a way to get information on job postings to the public. But their lack of reaching out to the Black community is becoming increasingly obvious when we noticed a recent job posting on for the Beverly-Mt. Greenwood community.

In response to the complaints filed by the Black female officers, we reached out to Cook County Board Commissioner Stanley Moore, the Chair for the Law Enforcement Committee and he was unavailable for comment. However, his office has released this statement.

If there is any allegations of racial discriminations across the county, he is opposed to any discrimination. As Chair of the Law Enforcement Committee for the Cook County Board, he will be paying close attention to any forms of discrimination but he hasn’t heard of any racial discrimination across the county,” said his spokesperson Joel Isidore.

Screenshot of Job Posting of Cook County Sheriff Corrections Officer Applications Recent Posting on 'Beverly-MtGreenwood, IL—Applications will be accepted until positions are filled.'

Screenshot of Job Posting of Cook County Sheriff Corrections Officer Applications Recent Posting on
‘Beverly-MtGreenwood, IL—Applications will be accepted until positions are filled.’

With this most recent statement released from Commissioner Moore’s office, he was one of the few public officials that met with the female correctional officers regarding these concerns. Although it was a tough decision to come forward with so much at stake—job employment, families and years of hard work earning a fair living. The difference between the jobs of the Cook County Department of Corrections officers and the Cook County Board of Commissioners is that one position holds a constitutional office and the other doesn’t but both work for the County. These officers are also taxpayers, constituents and potential registered voters.

Risking backlash by standing on moral grounds of fairness, safety and equal opportunities for career advancement should not be swept under the rug. An investigation into these concerns raised by the officers should not only be left to an outside counsel but also by people in office to shine light on the non-transparency that politics have played in alleged racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.

Not feeling confident in how these issues, one officer said, “Recently, an attorney came to the CCDC roll call and said it was a waste of time to complaint to file charges,” Feeling disappointed she continues, “Dart has lost control of the jail and has become a politician.”

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