Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson is personally leading an investigation into a “romantic embrace” between a corrections officer and an inmate reported to have occurred at the jail last week.

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Wilkinson says she had not reached any conclusions about whether the incident would result in criminal charges or if it had been appropriately handled by the sheriff’s office.

“We are going to figure out what happened, and we are going to take appropriate action,” Wilkinson said in an interview on Friday.

“I have no reason to think that (the sheriff’s office) won’t be forthcoming about this, and I am looking forward to getting to the bottom of this and following up in whatever way turns out to be appropriate.”

“The sheriff’s office has been completely cooperative since yesterday when I started reaching out officially. They are providing me with information.”

(Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice)

Yesterday, the Ithaca Voice reported that a corrections officer had been seen in a “romantic embrace” with an inmate. The incident was seen by two corrections officers from another county who were conducting an accreditation tour of the Tompkins County Jail, according to Sheriff Ken Lansing.

Sheriff Lansing said the corrections officer and inmate had been seen kissing. Lansing said the incident occurred last Friday, a week ago today, and that the corrections officer resigned either that day or the next one.

The Ithaca Voice received an anonymous call reporting the incident on Tuesday. Wilkinson says she was first asked to review the incident on Thursday.

“I’m not reaching any conclusions about why I didn’t hear about it for several days,” Wilkinson said. “I should make it clear when I say that the sheriff’s office has been forthcoming, I have not myself had any dealings yet with the sheriff (himself).”

Wilkinson says she was told about the incident by the office of County Administrator Joe Mareane. She said she didn’t know who was involved in the decision to refer the jail incident to the district attorney’s office for review.

Stressing that she was speaking generally, Wilkinson said that inmates cannot legally give consent under New York State Law.

“With the disclaimer that I’m speaking abstractly and not about this incident, what is true — according to the case law that I’ve had a chance to review so far — (is that) kissing is considered sexual contact within the meaning of the law,” she said.

“And prisoners by operation of law, by definition, are incapable of giving consent to sexual contact with somebody who is in a position of power and authority over them.”

Wilkinson said the incident has been reported to her as a “romantic embrace, which covers a multitude of possibilities.” She said she could not confirm what Sheriff Lansing said yesterday — that the corrections officer and inmate were seen kissing.

“I don’t know what the facts are yet. But it’s important enough because if it was a crime … and that crime entailed sexual contact of any kind between a corrections officer and an inmate, then I have to see that the person who did it is held accountable,” she said.

See related: Tompkins corrections officer resigns after ‘romantic embrace’ with inmate

Wilkinson said that, before the matter was referred to her for review, one of her assistant district attorneys received a call from an officer in the sheriff’s office. The ADA was asked by the officer something “on the order of, ‘If we had these facts, would it be a crime or not?,’” and that the ADA said that he thought that would be a crime, according to Wilkinson.

Sheriff Lansing said yesterday that this was the first time he had heard of sexual contact between inmates and guards at the jail. Wilkinson said that may be part of her investigation as well.

“I very much come to this with a blank slate,” Wilkinson said. “…Certainly, one of the questions I will be getting the answer to is whether there were any other complaints made about this particular officer.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.