The former dental program instructor at Topeka Correctional Facility was charged Friday with seven felony counts of unlawful sexual relations with women inmates and was being transferred to Shawnee County from a jail in Oklahoma.
The Kansas Department of Corrections said Tomas Co was the subject of a KDOC inquiry and that the agency's investigation report was presented to the Shawnee County district attorney. Each charge against Co was related to improper relations with a different inmate. The alleged incidents occurred between 2014 and 2018.
Documents obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal indicated county prosecutors received the case in January and an arrest warrant was issued for the suspect in February.
The first reports of alleged sexual misconduct by Co were brought to attention of Department of Corrections officials more than two years ago.
Co worked at the prison for women from 2013 until December, when the state severed his employment. He supervised TCF's inmate training and employment program designed to teach women in the program to make dentures. At times, he had 16 women in the program.
"We will cooperate fully with the prosecution of this case," said Roger Werholtz, who was appointed secretary of the Department of Corrections in January.
TCF, the state’s only correctional facility for women, has a population 955.
State corrections officials learned in 2017 of allegations that Co had sexually harassed women. Subsequently, state and federal auditors separately recommended he should be fired.
However, Co continued to work at the facility through November 2018, when he was placed on administrative leave after new allegations of sexual abuse prompted renewed scrutiny of him.
An inmate in January 2017 filed the initial complaint against Co, which prompted the internal TCF investigation. In the weeks that followed, a report provided to TCF warden Shannon Meyer concluded there was evidence of misconduct by Co. Meyer apparently recommended dismissal of Co to Johnnie Goddard, who at that time was deputy secretary of the state Department of Corrections in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback. Goddard declined to fire Co, but the program director was disciplined for sexual harassment.
A prison auditor working for the U.S. Department of Justice, based on a July 2017 review of the women's prison, sounded alarms based on interviews with TCF offenders and investigative files. The report by federal auditor Michele Dauzat was conducted through the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which required an audit every three years.
"I strongly recommend the administration of the agency review this case and terminate the dental lab supervisor," Dauzat wrote. "As an auditor, I do not feel it is a good practice to continue to have an employee supervise offenders that has admitted to undue familiarity with offenders in addition to allow him to continue in the same position of authority after having a substantiated sexual harassment case against him."
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, a spokesman for Just Detention International, said this was a horrifying case because Co was allowed to remain in his position for another year.
He also said the situation was typical of cases nationwide, because inmates faced retaliation if they stepped forward and few perpetrators were ever convicted. Just Detention International, dedicated to ending sexual abuse of those who are incarcerated, receives more than 2,000 letters from desperate inmates every year.
"There is a clear record of data from the prisons and jails collected over many years that shows known perpetrators of sexual abuse are not sanctioned in meaningful ways, allowing predators to continue to have access to victims," Co said. "This is a known dynamic in this country and a really disturbing trend. This is a clear illustration of what happens when sexual abuse is not dealt with swiftly and seriously.”
In October 2018, a corrections staff employee brought a new complaint of sexual harassment to the warden, who requested another round of internal investigation by the Department of Corrections.
Officials interviewed inmates who were formerly assigned to the dental lab and some said Co touched them inappropriately. Several inmates were interviewed multiple times before talking about the abuse.
Co was placed on administrative leave Nov. 16 and dismissed Dec. 10. Prison investigators met with the county prosecutor on Jan. 16, and an affidavit for arrest was issued Feb. 1. Co was apprehended by Oklahoma County authorities and booked into jail there on April 8 as a fugitive from justice.
In 2009, The Capital-Journal published a series of stories about sexual assault of women inmates by predatory corrections officers at TCF. The articles launched state and federal investigations leading to a declaration Kansas had violated civil rights of inmates.
The Kansas Legislature responded to the newspaper's series by voting to amend state law to require presumptive prison sentences for corrections employees found guilty of sexually assaulting prisoners. The Department of Corrections also expanded training of prison guards and installed new cameras to monitor interaction among employees and inmates.