The Toxic Environment of a Nasty Job

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.

20 thoughts on “The Toxic Environment of a Nasty Job

  1. REvers

    So how are they going to react when one of their clients offers to kill them? The chances of that happening are pretty close to 100%.

    1. SHG Post author

      First reply: Offers?
      Second reply: Is the client a transgender person?
      Third reply: So who’s the vulnerable one now?
      Fourth reply: We’re doomed.

  2. Shadow of a Doubt

    To begin with a Gertruding, no one should have to face someone whipping their junk out at them at work unless their business card says “urologist”, but this strikes me as a bunch of virtue signalling snowflakes who want to stand up for the “poor, indigent and victims of the system” without actually having to actually meet the kind of people that phrase describes.

    They’re not agitating for a better place for these people to be kept, mental health services for them, not lobbying for aid to an overburdened system so there can be enough defenders for everyone who aren’t overburdened with caseload, they’re seeking recompense for themselves, and no one else, for their place of work having the audacity to have them meet the people they’re supposed to defend. There ought to be a part of law school where people go and meet actual criminals so they understand that working at the public defenders office is not the same as being the nice man who daddy hired to make their DUI go away.

  3. MonitorsMost

    It’s ridiculous that customers can create a hostile work environment.

    I’m sorry Mrs. postal worker that the garbage human on X street made a racist slur when you walked by. There is literally nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop him from making those comments and we can’t stop delivering him mail. Suck it up or quit.

    Sorry Mrs. Public defender that inmates aren’t acting with the courtesy and chivalry of a Disney prince. Nothing we can do, sure as hell cant bash their heads in (which you’d probably object to anyway). Suck it up or quit.

  4. B. McLeod

    I read about this in the Tribune yesterday, and felt confident it would make its way here. Part of the rationale for suing the Chief Defender is that she wouldn’t agree to demand that all their clients be brought to the interviews in shackles, to thwart the evil masturbators among them. I suppose Illinois may need to issue some sort of formal opinion as to the ethical propriety of defense counsel making prophylactic demands to have their clients clapped in irons. It is not a mystery to me that the Chief Defender thought there was a professional barrier to that conduct.

    Also, the Tribune story revealed that the jail staff had taken some steps to attempt to address the masturbation problem, issuing special jumpsuits with groin shields. However, the crafty masturbators among the inmates found a way to burn holes in the jumpsuits using microwave ovens.

    So, there are problems with the system, some of which are related to limited resources for suppressing evil masturbators. Fortunately, there is a solution, which the PDs have identified. They simply needed to file suit, invoking the mighty civil powers of the courts to fix the situation and make their working conditions “non-toxic.” Of course, the courts are going to try. If they can whip marriage and gender and climate change, they can whip this (so to speak). Maybe they will actually order the general shackling of all defendants for all interviews. Maybe it will be steel chastity belts instead. Maybe they will just order budget and staff changes so that every prisoner is escorted to and supervised throughout the privileged interviews by two guards. I am on pins and needles to see the stellar solution they will arrive at, and how well it all turns out.

    1. SHG Post author

      In the ordinary course of affairs, the ethical duty of PDs would compel them to argue for their clients to be unshackled. But as is happening at NYC LAS and elsewhere, the duty to the client exists in rhetoric more than practice when it doesn’t align with their personal social justice desires.

      1. B. McLeod

        Of course, the PDs do have their statutory right to non-hostile working environment, so the courts will feel like they have to do something (and it can’t be a gender-based restriction that only male PDs handle client interviews). Meanwhile, the detainees (whether or not they are evil masturbators or shouters of insensitive words) still have their constitutional right to counsel.

        So, discontinuing the interviews (previously threatened by the Chief Defender) can’t be the answer. Also, the shackling and chastity belts seem overbroad when generally applied to all prisoners. Maybe the courts will devise a clever means of separating the lambs from the goats here. I’m sure they will come up with something wonderful, which will make the world (or at least the Cook County holding pens) a better place.

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Up next; trash collectors suing because that nasty-smelling trash creates a hostile work environment.

    1. B. McLeod

      I think that is an inapposite analogy in the sense that trash, as such, is not a sapient, human client. There is a crapload of developed law that recognizes an employer cannot (without civil liability) require employees to work with clients who sexually assault, sexually harass, or abuse them. So, we can all poke fun at the PDs bringing this case, based on the what-did-they-think-they-were-getting-into rationale, but the fact is, their case is not remotely frivolous. You can pretty much bet your bottom dollar that the court here will feel compelled to grant the plaintiffs relief. The only real questions are what that will look like, and whether it will work.

      1. Casual Lurker

        From your earlier comment:

        “However, the crafty masturbators among the inmates found a way to burn holes in the jumpsuits using microwave ovens”.

        There are studies that indicate that Licorice, which contains a substance (Glycyrrhizin) known to lower Testosterone levels, can act as an anaphrodisiac, if consumed on a regular basis. So offering detainees as much of it as they care to consume may assist in suppressing certain, undesirable, behaviors, all without invoking legal scrutiny.

        Being as Licorice is used as a flavoring agent in most Tobacco products, if you restrict Tobacco use (as most custodial institutions presently do), inmates naturally gravitate towards Licorice consumption, if available.

        Otherwise, “what that [relief] will look like”, may take the form used in the custodial clinical environment: Jackets that fasten in the rear. (A therapeutic ‘fashion fav!’) If that proves inadequate, it’s amazing what a few milligrams of Haldol (chemical handcuffs) will do.

        Those whose inability to acceptably self-regulate their behavior, appropriate to the situation, by definition “suffer” from a treatable affliction. Being able to separate “the lambs from the goats”, and apply treatment to the latter group, prior to interview, seems to be the challenge.

        It would seem to this non-lawyer that the party to be sued would be the jailing authority, for failing to have detainees properly evaluated and treated in a timely manner, if at all. (I realize this opens up a whole different can of worms, as similar issues are often litigated and re-litigated for those already convicted and sentenced. And yes, I’m aware of Washington v. Harper — this is the case counsel tends to make reference to whenever there are questions about whether we can “juice ’em up”).

        1. B. McLeod

          The jailing authority was willing to put all the interviewees in handcuffs, but the Chief Defender opposed that alternative. There are also some indications that the grabbing and masturbating are part of “scoring points” in a competitive game some of the inmates are playing. So, licorice seems an unlikely solution. Based on the way courts tend to do things, including the judicial principle that coming up with money is somebody else’s problem, I would expect the court to order allocation of additional resources for detainee/counsel interviews.

          1. Casual Lurker

            “The jailing authority was willing to put all the interviewees in handcuffs, but the Chief Defender opposed that alternative”.

            Just curious, is the Chief Defender strictly an administrative position or does s/he have direct interview duties with detainees?

            “So, licorice seems an unlikely solution”.

            Then Haldol it is! 😉

            Seriously though, in spite of our host’s implied admonition to not-feed-the-squirrels, your explanation that the behavior was part of a “competitive game” is both enlightening and useful, and one more variable to control for. (We are readying a study proposal to NIH).

            One loosely related thing we discovered: Due to the aforementioned restrictions on Tobacco use in most custodial environments, detainees complaining of withdrawal are usually offered a Nicotine patch. For chain-smokers, it turns out the drive to smoke is so great that they will dissect the patch, soak it to extract the active ingredient, allow for partial evaporation to concentrate the solution, then transfer it to an absorbent, smokable medium.

            Apparently, the patch doesn’t give them the “rush” they would typically get from the inhaled form. I am often amazed at the creative circumventions detainees come up with.

            “…I would expect the court to order allocation of additional resources…”

            We sure love those unfunded mandates. Good luck with that.

            1. SHG Post author

              Make a rule. Defendants will find a way around it. Cops will find a way around it. Bureaucrats will adore and abuse it. But no matter how many times this lesson is taught, this time will be different.

      2. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Maybe me not being a lawyer blinds me to the non-frivolousness of their case, but it seems to this layman like they are asking the court to stop assholes from being assholes. Let’s cure cancer while we’re at it; the judge can just order it.

        Anything that stops the kinds of people who end up in jail with no lawyer from acting like assholes is going to consume substantial resources. How many taxpayer dollars do we want to spend to protect the delicate sensibilities of these people who chose to make a career out of representing assholes? Sure it is an admirable choice, but can we insulate them from this ubiquitous negative aspect of their chosen career?

        The real solution is to pay them more, and hire more of them, but that will never happen. Filing frivolous lawsuits is probably their best course of action.

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