The warden of the state-run women's prison doesn't know why Kansas Department of Corrections officials retained until December a dental lab instructor who sexually harassed an inmate in her facility two years ago.
Warden Shannon Meyer recommended firing the instructor, Tomas Co, following an internal investigation into problematic behavior reported by an inmate in January 2017. Co now faces seven charges of unlawful sexual relations with seven different women, including four who said they were abused after Co was allowed to stay.
Meyer said there was no communication or explanation from Johnnie Goddard, the deputy secretary for the state Department of Corrections at the time, who decided to keep Co in a position of authority over women in the Topeka Correctional Facility. Goddard left the agency in January.
In the most serious criminal charge, the 73-year-old former dental instructor is accused of being manually stimulated by an inmate. Co's students also say he licked their ear, brushed against them and gave long hugs.
"It is our job to keep them safe and make sure they are in a safe environment and do what we can to prepare them for release," Meyer said. "That's our mission. Obviously, there are times when I don't get to fully make every decision."
Documents obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal and interviews with corrections officials point to warning signs with Co's behavior, including July 2017 notes by a federal auditor that strongly recommended that Co be fired. Mike Kagay, the Shawnee County district attorney, asked officials not to disclose further details about Co while he prepares for a preliminary hearing that should be scheduled next month.
Kagay and corrections officials declined to say whether anyone raised concerns about Co's behavior before 2017. Kagay said the timeline for the seven charges ranges from February 2014 to November 2018.
Co's attorney, Chris Joseph, said there is no video or other evidence to verify the allegations made by women from "a population that is generally deceptive."
"They are all friends," Joseph said. "You would think they would try to look for independent verification. In fact, it looked like they tried but couldn't."
Co was placed on administrative leave in November 2018 and fired the following month by officials in the administration of Gov. Jeff Colyer. KDOC agents met with Kagay's staff after Gov. Laura Kelly took office in January, and a warrant was issued for Co's arrest in early February.
Interim KDOC Secretary Roger Werholtz, appointed by Kelly in January, said current leadership would have dismissed Co after learning the findings of the 2017 investigation, which substantiated a sexual harassment claim.
“The allegations are truly upsetting, especially when so many people worked so hard to make Topeka Correctional Facility a safe environment where offenders and staff can be free of exploitation," Werholtz said. "This is a punch in the gut. There is no other way to say it.”
Co was arrested and booked into the Oklahoma County Jail on April 8. Kagay said officials waited until April 26 to extradite Co to Topeka because of a medical issue. At the Shawnee County Jail, Co posted $50,000 bond and was released in less than an hour.
Meyer said a new dental lab instructor was installed in March. Additional staff members were assigned to the room, and surveillance cameras were added to eliminate blind spots.
The Capital-Journal featured Co in a 2014 profile of the dental lab program, which teaches inmates to make dentures.
“It’s a one-time opportunity to learn a skill and stand on their own two feet in a good-paying job,” Co said.
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, spokesman for Just Detention International, said the decision to allow Co to remain in a position where he could exercise his authority over student inmates was a failure of KDOC leadership.
“One can only imagine the chilling effect this would have on people stepping forward to report an instance of sexual assault," Lerner-Kinglake said.
Several of the women in the program were interviewed multiple times before they were willing to come forward.
"That's just their way of dealing with the trauma," said Peggy Steimel, who coordinates KDOC compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. "With any individual, whether they are confined or out in the community, it's just their way of being able to deal with that, and sometimes it does take sharing and being able to trust the person you're talking to."
Steimel said KDOC officials were aware of the PREA review that was conducted in July 2017 and the federal auditor's recommendation to fire Co.
Federal law requires the U.S. Department of Justice to review each state-run prison every three years, checking for compliance issues. The audits are published on the KDOC website.
Michele Dauzat, the DOJ auditor, raised concerns about missing curtains that allowed male staff members to view women showering, as well as security cameras directed at the toilet area. Those issues were resolved with installation of shower curtains and the placement of a sticker over the camera lens to obscure view of the toilet area.
Dauzat expressed concern that Co was allowed to stay in his position even after he admitted to undue familiarity and had a substantiated sexual harassment case against him.
"That information was provided to KDOC administration at that point in time," Steimel said. "They knew what was in that audit report. It was their decision at that time. I don't know what their thought process was when they made the decision to retain Dr. Co."
Steimel said the audit recommendation on Co didn't require KDOC action because it fell outside the scope of federal compliance issues, which address training and procedure. Additionally, Steimel said, the known behavior by Co in 2017 was unprofessional but not criminal.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said corrections officials who served under Colyer and Gov. Sam Brownback imposed a "dictatorial" management style that allowed "a coverup to take place." Carmichael said the decision to retain Co could expose the state to liability if allegations of abuse are proven and the women file a civil claim.
People who are in KDOC custody, Carmichael said, "are not there to be sexually harassed by state employees. That is not a part of their sentence."
"It is intolerable for the Department of Corrections to know about these incidents and sweep them under the rug and continue to subject people in DOC custody to harassment and abuse," Carmichael said.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said she is concerned about women who are in prison for drug use or prostitution, usually because a boyfriend led them down a bad path, "and it's unfair they have to be assaulted again while there."
“Along with the other things that were going on throughout our correctional facilities," Faust-Goudeau said, "did we just want to keep that covered up, too, and not address it?”
Earlier this year, Werholtz said questionable decisions by state corrections department officials led to prison riots in 2017 and 2018, and the extent of damage was greater than previously disclosed. Lawmakers also learned the corrections system is grappling with a Hepatitis C outbreak. A chronic staffing shortage at El Dorado Correctional Facility forced Kelly to make an emergency declaration in February.
Carmichael said the allegations against Co came as no surprise and that he suspects other complaints fell on deaf ears.
For a while, complaints of sexual abuse that were reported through a kiosk at the women's prison went unanswered because of a glitch in the system. KDOC officials said the problem was fixed as soon as they learned no one was getting the reports.
“Some of the information that came to the Legislature’s attention would suggest that there were in fact assault and or batteries going on and that those were sometimes sexually motivated," Carmichael said. "Those types of allegations need to be explored and investigated by independent investigators, not DOC people.
"The attitude of turning one’s head the other way is what facilitates the abuse of prisoners, and that’s part of why this particular incident is so concerning, but my suspicion is this is not the only time this type of event has occurred over the past eight years.”