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Lawsuit Over 'Empire' Filming At Juvenile Jail Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By Kelly Bauer | April 24, 2017 10:33am | Updated on April 25, 2017 8:49am
 Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson star in Fox TV's
Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson star in Fox TV's "Empire."
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DOWNTOWN — A judge has ruled teens and children at a Chicago juvenile detention center can go forward in their lawsuit against Fox Television and Cook County after the center was placed on lockdown during the filiming of the "Empire" TV series. 

Children and teens at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center were confined to their cells or deprived of family visits and recreation time so Fox's hit show could film there in summer 2015, according to the class-action lawsuit, which was obtained by Deadline.com.

Judge Amy St. Eve ruled the lawsuit could proceed Thursday, though she dismissed some claims, according to documents from the Hollywood Reporter.

The detention center on the Near West Side was placed on lockdown three times in summer 2015, according to the suit. While the center was on lockdown, its inmates, who are 10 to 16 years old, had to remain in their cells or in "pods" just outside their cells and were forced to sit inside "for days on end," according to the lawsuit.

"The children ... were placed under restrictions more severe than those governing many adult jails," according to the lawsuit, which was brought by two former inmates who were 16 years old during the filming. The lawsuit hopes to represent all children who were housed at the center during filming.

"Empire" filmed two "highly profitable" episodes in the center's area for family visits, school, outdoor yard and library, making it impossible for the children to use those facilities, according to the lawsuit. Filming took place June 21-26, July 13-16 and Aug. 23-26, 2015.

"The children for whom these facilities were intended, meanwhile, were ordered to remain in their cells," according to the lawsuit. "Their schooling continued in name only, visits from their families were interrupted, cut back or effectively eliminated, sick call requests were ignored and programs that are intended to help them overcome the problems that landed them at the [center] in the first place were canceled or interrupted."

Because filming took up the space normally used for classrooms, teachers went from pod to pod to instruct the children, according to the lawsuit.

"This was 'school' in name only," the lawsuit contends. "The pods are not set up or even shaped like classrooms; instead, the teacher must stand in the midst of the seating that is arranged around the pod. There is no whiteboard or other teaching equipment for the instructor to use, and what supplies the teachers can bring to the pods are limited.

"What is more, during 'Empire' filming many of the children whom the teachers had to instruct had not been allowed to move all day and were going stir-crazy in what amounted to their own jail 'day room,'" the lawsuit claims.

Visits with family were "effectively eliminated" for many of the children at the center, according to the lawsuit, while other families waited for hours to visit their children for just a few minutes because of the filming. Normally, families wait several minutes and are able to visit with children for an hour or longer, according to the lawsuit.

Filming also took up the third-floor, open-air courtyard that is used as the center's primary recreation facility, according to the lawsuit. The yard is split into three sections, and though "Empire" filmed in just one section, the children were not allowed to use any of the yard, according to the lawsuit.

"Many children never received any recreation or exercise at all" during the filming, according to the lawsuit. "At no point during the 'Empire' filming were the children allowed outdoors, as they would have if they had been allowed to use the third-floor courtyard."

During filming, the center's employees were told to work for the film crew, acting as extras, cleaning out areas of the building and escorting actors around the set, amid other jobs, according to the lawsuit. That meant they were diverted from their job of fulfilling the center's "rehabilitative mission," the lawsuit contends.

The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has faced controversy in the past. It was seen as a "depot where children were locked up in violent, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions," according to the Tribune, and courts had to intervene.