The role of female corrections officers in sex misconduct
In eyes of state and feds, officer is always the violator
By Matt Gouras
HELENA, Mont. — Inmate Michael Murphy usually started by seeking a small favor. That would often lead to a kiss or love letters. And in at least five cases, he convinced female prison employees to have sex with him or do other illegal favors.
In each of those cases, the female corrections employees were caught, shamed and forced out of a job, according to documents detailing an investigation by Montana prison officials and obtained by The Associated Press after an open-records lawsuit.
The female officers described Murphy as the aggressor, even as the predator. But that makes no difference in either state or federal penitentiaries, where prison employees - male or female - are the violators if they have sex with inmates.
A Justice Department study shows that cases like Murphy's are common: Female staff are more often implicated than their male counterparts in prison sexual misconduct. While many cases could be considered consensual, incarceration experts and female prison officers say the problem is much more complicated.
In some cases, the women reported that they couldn't say no to the inmate out of fear, or were afraid to go to a co-worker out of shame at what had happened. One small mistake often led to something else.
Experts say there is a culture of silence in the prisons that makes it difficult for female officers to come forward with problems before they spin out of control.
Documents detailing the state investigation into Murphy's liaisons show he persuaded at least five Montana female prison employees to break the rules over several years. He even convinced his therapist to have sex with him, and was able to arrange one-on-one meetings with her even though prison officials knew of his past history with female workers.
Cover-up charges were filed against one of the female prison workers. Murphy, 36, faced no charges. He is serving time for theft, forgery and other charges.
No sexual assault charges were filed at the time against the women due to lack of evidence, according to the documents. But in letters to newspapers and in a request to the ACLU of Montana, Murphy wrote that he had been sexually assaulted by some of the women. Prison officials would not allow him to be interviewed for this story.
The confidential and lengthy internal investigation tells a complicated tale about how an inmate manipulated prison staff.
The therapist, for instance, told internal investigators that she knew she had been manipulated and compromised. She said she allowed Murphy to kiss her one day in her office and the relationship spiraled out of control from there.
The man who once ran New York City's corrections department has little sympathy for female prison workers who see themselves as victimized in these cases.
Martin Horn, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said female workers who have sex with inmates are often treated less harshly by officials than male worker who do the same.
"As long as we have a double standard we are going to see these kind of behaviors," Horn said. "It is a very slippery slope we go down if we say we are not going to hold female officers to the same standard."
A 2007 U.S. Department of Justice study analyzing the prevalence of sexual assault in state and federal prisons found that 58 percent of staff perpetrators of sexual misconduct were female.
One expert on the issue says the "culture of silence" in prisons makes it tough on the female workers.
"Even if the staff did small favors, they should have felt free enough to communicate with their superiors about the fact that they were by being blackmailed by the inmate," said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who has studied prison rape issues.
Montana corrections officials said they have cases dating back to 2003 where two female workers at the state prison in Deer Lodge were disciplined for some sort of undisclosed involvement with Michael Murphy. Murphy rocked the prison again in 2008 when it was learned three more had become involved with him.
The prison launched a lengthy internal investigation, and Murphy was later transferred to a facility in Glendive.
Montana State Prison Warden Mike Mahoney said 41 percent of the system's employees are female. He said it is impossible to separate female staff from any particular inmate, even one who has proven skilled at compromising workers.
He said the prison always stresses to workers not to get involved with inmates in even the smallest way, and to never reveal personal details of any type. The warden said Murphy's case, though, will likely provide lessons to improve the training.