Public defenders pushed to breaking point by masturbating inmates

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Staffers in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office are used to clients who may have done horrible things, but over the last two years, female employees say their clients have become more brazen in doing horrible things right in front of them.

Masturbating inmates have become a common sight on the walk to and from holding cells where defense attorneys meet clients, and at the jail and in courthouse lockups. Last week, in a letter to Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Public Defender Amy Campanelli said her staff has reached a breaking point, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

Campanelli declined to share a copy of the letter, but confirmed that she warned the judge that her staff won’t visit the jail starting Nov. 6 unless he or Sheriff Tom Dart can offer up a solution.

A spokesman for Evans said Campanelli will have a chance to speak at a regularly scheduled judges’ meeting that day.

“There have always been these incidents since I became a public defender,” said Campanelli, who has been in the office for more than a decade. “But it’s never been like it is today, where it’s like the behavior we’re seeing now, every day, or every other day. It’s just become pervasive. We’ve tried everything.”

Campanelli — who lauded Dart’s efforts to combat the phenomenon — said nothing has worked. Her office provided a timeline dating back to October 2015, detailing attempts to deal with an increasing number of incidents. In letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, Campanelli wrote to Dart in March, describing it as a “crisis” and calling for guards to be assigned to every lockup in the criminal courthouse.

“Of late, it has become a daily occurrence,” she wrote. “Male detainees constantly expose themselves and masturbate while in the lockup behind the courtrooms.”

Cara Smith, Dart’s policy director, said she wasn’t aware of Campanelli’s letter to Evans, but acknowledged the problem. Since January, 222 detainees have been charged with indecent exposure, including 144 cases where the victims were jail personnel, and 29 where complaints were filed by defenders. Smith, who ran the jail from 2013 to 2015, has been a victim herself.

“This is something that happens in custodial environments, period,” Smith said. “I don’t know that there is a silver-bullet answer. We’re willing to do anything that protects our staff and the rest of the criminal justice system.”

No other jail seems to have the same problem with public indecency on a similar scale to Cook County, according to the state Public Defenders Association and the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association. Smith said there seems to be no reason for the number of incidents, other than a bizarre sense of nihilism among a relative handful of the 7,000-plus detainees at the jail. Attempts to stop it have met mixed results — in part because of resistance from individual public defenders and Campanelli herself, according to Smith.

The sheriff lobbied for legislation that would have created increased penalties for indecent exposure inside jails and prisons, making the offense a felony requiring lifetime registration as a sex offender — a status that carries a stigma inside prison and creates a host of problems for offenders after they’ve served their time, Smith said.

“We feel very strongly that this would have been a tremendous deterrent,” Smith said. “The public defender objected to that bill.”

Campanelli said that, on principle, public defenders couldn’t support legislation that upgraded a misdemeanor to a felony. Female staffers say they face a similar dilemma when deciding whether to press charges after one of their clients pulls out his penis. The additional charges add potential jail time for their clients, and forces defenders to hand off the case to another attorney.

Campanelli said the problem did seem to improve when Dart this spring added additional sheriff’s officers to monitor courthouse lockups. Those extra guards were removed in August, and the masturbation incidents returned, Campanelli said.

The extra guards cost $40,000 per week in overtime, Smith said, but the sheriff has begun placing male employees — generally higher-ranking male civilian sheriff’s staff, who don’t get overtime pay.

“The sheriff is committed to working to solve this problem,” she said. “This is a very unfortunate reality.”

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