A man who taught female Kansas state prisoners how to make dentures was convicted on March 6, 2020 of molesting a prisoner, sentenced to 32 months in prison and required to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Thomas Co, 73, was the supervisor of the dental lab program at the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison. He taught the prisoners to make dentures that were used for other prisoners and for people receiving dentures through the state’s social services programs.
Co arrived at Topeka in 2013 and complaints about sexual harassment of the women in the dental lab program began almost immediately. The complaints escalated to unwanted kissing and touching and eventually escalated sufficiently to justify criminal charges after an internal investigation determined that Co should be fired. He was terminated in 2018.
Co’s trial involved allegations of molestation by six women, but he was found guilty on only one charge. Shawnee County District Judge Cheryl Rios allowed Co to post a $50,000 appeal bond after the trial.
Sherman Smith, managing editor for The Topeka Capital-Journal, broke the story about Co in 2019. His investigation turned up at least a dozen women who said Co had molested them. Most of the women were afraid to make a formal complaint, fearing that they would not be believed because of their criminal histories and that they might face retaliation.
Indeed, some of the women who complained were removed from the program, one of the few that paid Kansas prisoners, and transferred to another prison. The women who filed formal complaints told Smith that investigators would say things like, “You know, this is a great opportunity for you,” referring to the program and implying that complaining would lead to their removal from it. They were under a great deal of pressure not to complain about Co. Further, investigators told Co about the complaints and he told the women, “I know that you told on me, and I can take everything away from you.”
Co is the first prison employee charged with sexual misconduct to receive a prison sentence. All of the other cases ended with plea bargains where the defendant pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and avoided jail time.
Sources: hayspost.com, kmuw.org, Associated Press
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