The first time a lawyer walks into the pens can be a shock. The first thing that hits you is the smell, a mix of body odors and fluids, and solids, that may be the most awful smell you ever endure. And then you get to the cells, filled with the detritus of humanity.
To be sure, there are good, normal people in there. And there are the dregs of society. There are the mentally ill and the unfortunately sane. There are the guilty and the innocent, locked together for maybe 24 hours. This will come as a surprise to people who only read the sad anecdotes of the vulnerable and unfortunate written by the unduly passionate, but some of these people are disgusting and dangerous. Whether one prefers Dante or Kafka doesn’t matter at that point. Until you get out, that is your world.
That is also the world of the criminal defense lawyer, and more particularly, the public defender. And rarely are the words “toxic environment” more appropriate.
A half-dozen employees of the Cook County Public Defender’s office have filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, claiming county officials have done nothing to protect them from inmates who masturbate in front of them during visits to the jail and courtroom holding cells.
The federal lawsuit describes almost daily encounters in which detainees masturbate and leer at the lawyers during meetings with clients – a phenomenon the complainants say has been on the rise at the jail dating back to 2015.
There are ways in which the lawyers who need to speak with their clients in order to prepare to represent them can be insulated from this hell. They can provide private meeting rooms, where the defendants are brought from the holding cell to see their attorney, and the lawyer isn’t required to go into the pens and try to have a confidential discussion through steel bars while a dozen other defendants scream “Yo, yo, you my lawyer?”, their dirty hands trying to grab hold of whatever body part they can reach.
Another alternative, not nearly as good but better than nothing, is to have guards keeping the inmates under control. This means not only a warm body in the room, but one inclined to do something about some of the evil things happening in the pens. There are nasty things, like masturbation, not to mention defecation, nature being what it is.
There are also the good guys who said the wrong thing to the wrong cop, and ended up in a place where they stand no chance of defending themselves from guys hardened by life on the street. They are the prey in the pens. Will anyone save them from the attack? If you were the lone guard in the room, would you enter that holding cell to stop it?
The female public defenders in Chicago had enough and brought suit.
Plaintiffs and the APDs represent some of society’s most vulnerable members. They work every day to protect their clients’ rights and litigate their cases, often with very few resources. The work is grueling and their caseloads are heavy, but they are almost uniformly driven by their love of the important work they do. However, as a result of a toxic work environment caused and perpetuated by Defendants in concert, they are forced to regularly endure heinous sexual misconduct, robbing many of their love of the job, maybe permanently.
For at least two years, and continuing through the present, female APDs and law clerks have been increasingly subjected to offensive incidents whereby male detainees in the courtroom lockups and Divisions 9 and 10 of the Cook County Jail (collectively, “detainees”) have repeatedly exposed their penises, masturbated, and engaged in other acts of sex-based aggression, verbal threats and harassment, and on an almost daily basis.
There is a mix of two issues in here. The first is that they’re subject to working conditions subjecting them to the offense of indecent exposure, inmates displaying their junk, whether during their Louis CK impression or for lack of personal space and poor impulse control. Nobody needs that. The women PD surely don’t. Truth be told, it’s not much fun for the male lawyers either.
The other part is that nasty guys yell nasty things, forcing their nasty words upon sensitive ears.
As the Godfather reminded us, this is the life we chose. These nasty guys are the defendants, our clients. They can be horribly vulgar, threatening, disgusting. They aren’t always the sad, vulnerable sympathetic beings we like to believe they are. But they’re ours.
The plaintiffs are suing the Cook County Public Defender, as that’s their employer and the party responsible for providing them with a safe working environment. What the Public Defender is supposed to do about this is a mystery. The PD can’t build them private attorney rooms, or deploy sufficient guards to make the pens safer and saner. If there was money available, would they rather it be put to use by paying more guards or paying them a decent salary? Maybe hiring more PDs so that the workload wasn’t overwhelming and they could do their job better?
There are specific programs, specific problems and specific failures that exacerbate the toxicity of the environment, and the plaintiffs are absolutely right to complain that they need not be subject to criminal conduct when they do their job. Being a public defender does not mean one has to assume the risk of physical attack. No one should be subject to violence for fulfilling their duty.
Defendants have been aware of this offensive and dangerous conduct by detainees
for more than two years but have knowingly permitted it to continue. As a result of Defendants’ actions and inactions, incidents of obscene exposure, masturbation, and harassment against female APDs have increased in frequency and severity.
But if your complaint is that criminal defendants, the very people whom you are sworn to zealously represent, are sucking the love out of your job with their nastiness, then maybe the failure of the screws to provide a safe environment isn’t really the problem. These are the people we defend. This is our ugly, disgusting world. This is the job. Maybe the job isn’t for you if you are more worried about your feelings than the people we are there to defend.