Read her words.
“This was happening because he wanted it to, because he was doing it, because he was the one in control, and he was the teacher, and he was a leader, and I should have been protected in there, and I wasn’t.”
The statement comes from a former Topeka Correctional Facility inmate, testifying against Tomas Co, the former dental lab instructor who now faces six felony charges for unlawful sexual relations with inmates.
Read those words again.
Then consider these words, from The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Sherman Smith: “A recent investigation by The Capital-Journal revealed inmates under Co’s supervision complained about his behavior for five years before he was fired in December 2018. Corrections officials investigated complaints and were aware of the extent of alleged sexual misconduct but failed to intervene in the routine abuse.”
Imagine for a moment the pain and misery of these women. They are paying their debt to society, likely at one of the lowest points of their lives. And then, they tell officials, they face a predatory instructor. And the officials do nothing.
For years, the officials didn’t intervene.
And inmates tell us now that the abuse continued.
Everyone in Kansas who cares about justice should care about this case. We have a system of justice for a reason. When people are imprisoned, they give up their freedom. But they do not give up their humanity. Prisoners must be treated like the fellow humans that they are.
Our society spends an incredible amount of time and energy saying that groups of people are different. That one group or another “isn’t like us.” Those in prison aren’t like us. Those who have differently colored skin aren’t like us. Those in the foster care system aren’t like us. Those who have chronic illness aren’t like us.
And we too often internalize these messages. We come to believe that, at some level, they’re true. There’s no way we could be a prisoner, or a member of a different racial group, or a foster kid, or someone who’s chronically ill.
We turn away. We don’t listen.
And our ignorance, our othering, allows horrors to unfold under our noses.
Co and the women accusing him will have their day in court. But it’s on the rest of us to prevent abuse from happening in prisons and throughout the other systems that allow us to keep those in need at arm’s length.
The simple truth is, these folks aren’t different from us. They are us.
Read the words. And think.