Sexual assault survivors: Believe us, protect us, educate, act
A year before a women’s prison dental instructor was accused of sexually abusing prisoners in his program, an auditor had recommended he be fired.
But prison officials chose not to remove Tomas Co then, and the former dental instructor is now accused of cutting out the pocket of his pants and on numerous occasions having prisoners rub his penis. Charges against Co also allege that he licked the ears of women and touched a woman’s vaginal area over her clothes in a storage closet.
According to one report, Co used a photo of one woman prisoner to make a body pillow in her likeness, which he slept with.
Co, who has now been terminated, is charged in Shawnee County District Court with seven counts of engaging in unlawful sexual relations with prisoners.
An affidavit filed with the charges contains several accounts from prisoners at Topeka Correctional Facility, Kansas’ only women’s prison.
Co began as a contract employee and was later hired by the Kansas Department of Corrections in June 2013.
The dental program he managed teaches prisoners how to make dentures.
In an August 2017 audit required to meet guidelines for the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, an auditor strongly recommended Co be terminated. The report said the dental lab supervisor was reprimanded but not terminated after a sexual harassment complaint was substantiated, and that it wasn’t good practice for him to continue in the position.
Still, Co continued working at the prison.
Last fall, when the accusations outlined in the affidavit surfaced, Co was placed on administrative leave, said Cheryl Cadue, spokeswoman for the department of corrections.
Several prisoners said they initially didn’t report the behavior because they feared losing their spot in the dental program or being retaliated against, according to the affidavit.
One woman described Co as “a predator.” Others reported feeling uncomfortable and disgusted or being afraid of him.
A special agent with the state prison system who investigated the case concluded in the affidavit that “Dr. Co carried on inappropriate relationships with offenders and touched them contrary to their wishes. Dr. Co used his position of power to coerce the female offenders into allowing him to touch them and instilled fear in them that, for the most part, they did not report his actions.”
Co’s defense attorney Chris Joseph said the accusations arise from seven inmates who are friends.
The lab is under video surveillance, there were always one or two other lab employees present and a guard was stationed outside the lab and could see inside, Joseph said.
“There is nothing that corroborates the inmates’ claims,” Joseph said. “I am confident Dr. Co will be acquitted at trial.”
Co was terminated in December 2018, said Cadue, the department of corrections spokeswoman.
Warden Shannon Meyer said she didn’t know why Co wasn’t fired when the federal audit issued the recommendation in 2017. Though the issue fell outside the audit’s scope, the recommendation still “was referred to administration.” But the department didn’t take any action.
Cadue said Meyer did in fact want Co gone.
“The reality is I don’t get to make all the decisions,” Meyer said. Ultimately the secretary of the department of corrections may decide personnel actions.
The dental program was shut down for a few months, but has since restarted after a new instructor was hired.
Meyer said they have added additional cameras in the dental lab and conducted additional training.
She also said she was glad the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office is proceeding with prosecution and that it is important to send a message of accountability to both offenders and staff.
If the charges are proven, the best outcome “is he’s held accountable,” Meyer said.