A 73-year-old Kansas prison dental instructor accused of sexually abusing inmates goes on trial Monday.
Tomas Co, 73, taught inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison. He faces six felony counts in Shawnee County of unlawful sexual relations for allegedly kissing students, touching them inappropriately and commenting on their appearances. He was removed from his job in 2018.
Nomin Ujiyediin of the Kansas News Service interviewed the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Sherman Smith, who broke the story in 2019 and will be following the trial. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Who is Tomas Co and what are the allegations against him?
A: (He is a) former supervisor of the dental lab program at the Topeka Correctional Facility. He taught the inmates there how to make dentures that are supplied to other inmates and those who get dentures through social services that are operated by the state.
He arrived there in 2013 as a supervisor from Oklahoma City and almost immediately, there were complaints of sexual harassment … That escalated into unwanted touching and then more serious problems that led to the criminal charges.
Q: Why was the alleged abuse allowed to go on for so long?
A: Prison officials struggled to prove some of the allegations. But there was also clearly pressure to see this program as being very beneficial to the state. It was not only serving this purpose of making dentures, but it allowed the administration at the time to say, “You know, look at this wonderful thing that we're doing for inmates. We're giving them a work skill and employment skill that will allow them to have a better life when they leave here.”
And the women who complained talked to me about sitting down with an investigator and having the investigators say to them, “You know, this is a great opportunity for you.” It was one of the rare programs that paid a wage.
There's a lot of pressure to not make any more complaints. Some of the women were relocated within the prison, so they were no longer part of the program. Other women were subjected to scrutiny by Tomas Co, who would say, “I know that you told on me, and I can take everything from you.”
Q: How many people ended up coming forward? Do we know how many he allegedly abused overall?
A: There were five who moved forward with criminal charges and then an additional one who stepped forward in December.
But there are other women that I've talked to who refused to participate in this legal process just because they don't trust it. There are women who are afraid, even if they're outside of prison now, that parole officers would send them back to prison, women inside who are afraid of retribution from other prisoners who enjoyed getting benefits, gifts that Co would bring of makeup or food or other items. And they were willing to have unwanted sexual contact in exchange for those gifts.
So there's a lot of fear surrounding this. We don't know how many women total may have been victims here, but it's at least a dozen. Prison officials, just like people on the outside, are reluctant to believe women when they step forward and complain of sexual abuse.
Most of the women there have suffered trauma before. And so this is really having a compounding effect of trauma upon trauma that's not being addressed.
Q: What is the potential outcome of this trial?
A: The defense attorney for Tomas Co has really tried to address issues like a lack of surveillance footage to support the claims. And so it really will be a matter of whether the jury believes the women there. If he is convicted of these crimes, the sentence requires prison time.
He would be the first person who's been charged with these crimes in recent years to actually go to prison for them. All the other cases of have ended up with plea deals where the defendant pleads to a misdemeanor and avoids jail time.
There's a specific Kansas statute that addresses a sexual contact with inmates. And the idea is that even consensual sex would be illegal because of the power dynamic there.
Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.