Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

In an October 31 letter directed to felony trial attorneys, a supervisor in Cook County public defender Amy Campanelli’s office forbade staff from entering courtroom lockup areas at the criminal court building at 26th and California “until further notice.” The reason? Public defenders are being sexually harassed and even assaulted while visiting their clients in lockups. One of the most common forms of assault cited is defendants masturbating in front of female public defenders.

“The Public Defender has been extremely concerned about the security of our personnel,” wrote supervising attorney Marc Stahl. “Assistant Public Defenders have been spat on, grabbed, and even physically attacked by inmates. In addition, our female attorneys have been subjected to repeated acts of public indecency.” The public defender’s office pointed the finger at the sheriff’s office, saying the incidents have multiplied since deputies were removed from security duty in lockup areas. 

Stahl’s letter shines a spotlight on the consequences of Cook County’s fiscal crisis, recently exacerbated by the repeal of the soda tax, and raises questions about the root cause of the apparent uptick of indecent behavior among defendants. Some criminal justice advocates are worried that the response from Campanelli’s office, while wholly understandable, might jeopardize defendants’ constitutional rights. Others say the situation is a perfect example of the consequences of punitive pretrial detention policies.

Reached over the phone, Campanelli clarifies that “these incidents generally are not happening between a lawyer and that lawyer’s client. The incidents are happening when I’m speaking to my client and someone else in the lockup is exposing himself, touching himself.”

Such incidents weren’t unheard of in Campanelli’s decades of criminal defense experience within and outside the public defender’s office, but the frequency has dramatically increased, she says, since the Cook County sheriff’s office scaled back guard staffing in holding areas located outside of felony courtrooms.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cara Smith confirms her office has had to scale back the presence of deputies in lockups over the last six weeks due to what she describes as untenable overtime costs of approximately $40,000 per week. “It’s not a normal assignment to have deputies in lockups,” she says. “We had some deputies assigned in those areas for a little while. Due to the county’s budget crisis we could not afford to have those additional posts.”

Smith says incidents of indecent exposure do happen in lockups, but that these behaviors are most typical of defendants in pretrial detention at the jail’s maximum security divisions. More than half of those defendants are clients of assistant public defenders from Campanelli’s office. According to Smith, Campanelli “unfairly places the blame for the behavior of their own clients at the feet of our office and takes no responsibility for all the other factors that contribute to this problem occurring.” She points to the extended length of pretrial incarceration caused, in part, by continuances filed by public defenders.

“Eighty-five percent of the people we transport to court every single day stand before the court for a matter of seconds before their case is continued,” Smith says. “The public defender’s office should be moving their cases more quickly.” Smith also endorsed a punitive solution to the behavior, saying the sheriff’s office supported legislation last year that would’ve lowered the bar for felony charges related to repeated incidents of indecent exposure—legislation that Campanelli opposed.

Campanelli says she’d rather not push for harsher charges against people who might be her own clients in order to achieve safer working conditions for her staff. She balks at the accusation that her lawyers are contributing to the problem with court delays. “Most if not all continuances in a case are agreed upon between the prosecutor and public defender,” she says. “Serious cases take a lot of work and they’re extremely complex. When a case comes to us we have to start from ground zero investigating.” That puts her staff at a disadvantage compared to the state’s attorneys, whose investigative legwork is often done by police departments.

“No lawyer should ever go to trial or have a motion heard without being prepared. These clients’ lives are at stake,” she says. “And if I don’t have the money I need in my budget my work loads are gonna increase.” As a Reader investigation revealed last year, the causes for pretrial delays also frequently involve no-show cops and retaliatory tactics by judges.

Campanelli believes the best solution to the problem of public defenders being sexually harassed in lockup is a return to prior sheriff’s deputy staffing levels—something that seems to have deterred such behavior in the past. She’d like to see defendants who already have indecent exposure charges brought to court in handcuffs so they’re unable to reoffend. She’s also advising staff to request one-on-one meetings with a client before court hearings, away from the lockup areas, since these incidents rarely occur between a lawyer and her client in private settings. As much as a defendant’s constitutional rights to an attorney may be infringed upon if his lawyer can’t meet before a hearing, these same rights “are thwarted by someone else exposing themselves,” she says. “I’m not having a conversation with my client, if I’m having [to deal with] that. I’m not concentrating, they’re throwing me off.”

Smith says that in the last two weeks overtime-exempt male sheriff’s office staff such as supervisors and project managers have been assigned to watch over lockups. But Campanelli doesn’t feel that the problem has been adequately addressed. She plans to enlist the help of chief judge Timothy Evans to issue an order compelling the sheriff to provide more regular staff. It’s unclear how that would solve the problem of the county not having enough money in the coffer to pay them.

Watching from the sidelines, legal advocates are pointing out that the real problem driving deviant behavior in lockups is pretrial incarceration itself and the consistent underfunding of the county’s criminal justice system at all levels. Some defendants engaging in inappropriate behavior could have been mentally impaired before they got locked up, experts say, but the experience of incarceration can drive even healthy people to lash out in all kinds of ways.

“I think the issue is intimately connected to the violence of incarceration,” says Sharlyn Grace, an attorney and policy analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice who’s been at the forefront of the push to abolish money bail in Illinois. She added that charging people with new crimes for indecent exposure in lockups, especially if they’re mentally impaired, is not only unlikely to deter the behavior but carries additional harmful ramifications. “We cannot look to just charging people with new crimes, especially crimes that are potentially going to punish them for life if they end up on the [sex offender] registry,” Grace says. “If our goal is to stop the behavior, this is not a solution.”

Grace agrees that case-processing times are a huge problem, but they don’t hinge on the public defenders alone. She thinks the more likely root cause of inmates’ inappropriate behavior is the conditions of incarceration. “Sexuality is a human right and when we treat people poorly there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot going into indecent exposure, but I do think the conditions of jail are creating this problem,” she says. “It’s about the lack of control and lack of power people feel.” Though sheriff Tom Dart has ended the practices of strip searches and solitary confinement in Cook County Jail (degrading experiences imposed by authorities that contribute to aggressive behavior by inmates), incarceration continues to expose inmates to violence, fear, intimidation, and a basic lack of loving human contact, as one 2015 study frames the problem.

Jason Lydon, founder of Black and Pink, a national organization focused on supporting LGBTQ and HIV-positive inmates and lead author of “Coming Out of Concrete Closets” says that oftentimes behaviors like the ones described in the public defender’s letter are about “reclaiming power. It’s a form of humiliating someone else, making someone else uncomfortable by feeling powerful for oneself.” Lydon adds that the occurrence of these behaviors, while inexcusable, should prompt the public to consider how the structure and operations of jails and prisons may be prompting the incidents, rather than how the people who engage in such behaviors could be further punished or pathologized.

“We dehumanize people when we put them into prisons and jails, we artificially isolate them from any legitimate sexual outlet, and it therefore causes people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” says Alan Mills, a civil rights attorney who’s represented incarcerated Illinoisans in a variety of lawsuits.

Mills lays the blame for escalating incidents of inappropriate behavior partially on the lax implementation of the chief judge’s recent order not to set bail amounts that defendants can’t afford and partially on the budgetary constraints of the public defender’s office. If the jail population was adequately reduced, he says, the people deemed to be dangerous to public safety could receive more attention and programming from the sheriff’s office. That could in turn reduce instances of aggressive and inappropriate behavior. If the public defender’s office was properly funded, he adds, lawyers would have more manageable caseloads and the time they need to build personal relationships with their clients that would deter disrespectful behavior and allow for more effective legal advocacy.

With cuts to the county budget looming, the situation is unlikely to get easier for either Dart’s or Campanelli’s staff. Or for the low-income defendants of color who overwhelmingly make up the jail population.

“I think masturbation is a distraction,” Mills says. “It’s not the real problem—it’s just the symptom of the problem.”