Cook Co. Jail female employees speak out for 1st time since filing inmate sexual harassment lawsuit

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Two women who said they were victims of sexual harassment are speaking out for the first time Thursday.

They are describing in graphic detail what happened while working at the Cook County Jail.

Denise Hobbs and Esther Jones retired as Cook County Jail employees in 2019 after several years of service. Both said they chose to quit rather than continue to put up with sexual harassment from inmates.

"My workplace conditions deteriorated," Hobbs said. "Indecent exposure and public masturbation became commonplace and the norm."

As a corrections officer, Hobbs said she was exposed to the harassment daily.

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Jones experienced sexual abuse while taking inmates between holding cells and courtrooms.

"I feel like I lost my humanity, it totally changed me as a person," Jones said. "I became fearful of my job or supported."

Both women said multiple verbal and written complaints to supervisors were not only ignored, but mocked.

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"I filed a report over masturbation that had just taken place [and] I was walking down the hall and a fellow officer said to me, 'Hobbs, you still got it,'" Hobbs recalled.

Now, as they speak out publicly for the first time, Hobbs, Jones and other female employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Cook County and the Sheriff's office in 2017.

The female jail employees' lawsuit was filed at the same time as a group of women from the public defender's office who filed a similar suit, but it was later settled by the county.

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"The sheriff has spent the last four years fighting this case tooth and nail instead of trying to resolve it," said Noelle Brennen, the jail employees' attorney.

The county won an appeal to declassify the lawsuit, meaning women who want to join must do so individually using their names. In a written statement, the sheriff's office said it has taken several steps to deter harassment from inmates, including "specialized jumpsuits, new cuffing procedures and increasing jail discipline."

The female employees say it's not enough.

"They failed to protect me and other women," Jones said.

If other jail employees want to join the lawsuit, there is a court-ordered deadline of July 7 to do so. Plaintiff lawyers said hundreds of women are considering it.
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