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HELENA - Inmate Michael Murphy sought out female guards and prison workers that he knew would be easy to charm.

He started by seeking a small favor, which could lead to a kiss or love letters. In at least five cases, he convinced women to have sex with him or perform other significant illegal favors.

And yet Michael Murphy is considered the victim in each case, because inmates cannot legally consent to sex.

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 women 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 consensualincarceration experts and female prison guards say the problem is much more complicated than that.

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, that one small mistake led to something else.

Experts say there is a culture of silence in the prisons that makes it difficult for female guards to come forward with problems before they spin out of control. But they also cite a double standard in which female guards are treated less harshly when their transgressions come to light.

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 success in conniving favors out of female workers.

Charges were filed against one of the female prison workers. Murphy, 36, faced no charges.

The affair cost one female employee her marriage, her career and any chance at a real job.

She believes strongly the prison erred in letting Murphy circulate in a less restrictive environment that allowed one-on-one interaction with female guards and workers - even though his past was well known.

"People kind of look at us as if we are the dirt under their fingernails. That is a hard place to be," she told The AP in a telephone interview Thursday. "Everyone needs to be held accountable. I need to be held accountable, and I think I was. The prison needs to be held accountable, and Michael Murphy needs to be held accountable."

The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared repercussions from her current employer if she were identified.

Murphy claimed, in letters to newspapers and in a request to the ACLU of Montana, that some of the women sexually assaulted him. No sexual assault charges were filed at the time due to lack of evidence.

But a confidential and lengthy internal investigation tells a far more complicated tale about how an inmate manipulated prison staff.

The therapist, for instance, told internal investigators that from the start that she knew she had been manipulated and compromised.

"And then he kissed me one day in my office and I just thought, 'What the f--- did I just do, what just happened?'" she said in a 2008 interview she was told would be confidential. "From that point on I just, I felt like I couldn't do anything, I couldn't say no to him, I couldn't get myself out of it. It's like he had that over me, and he continued to push."

The agency first disclosed in 2008 that three female workers were resigning after an investigation into sexual misconduct connected to Murphy. Two of the workers reached at the time by The AP - including the therapist - denied any wrongdoing. But copies of the investigation show they were indeed under the thumb of Murphy, in prison for theft, forgery and other charges.

The therapist told the internal investigator that she was soon giving Murphy money and oral sex.

"I was just like, 'What, you know, what are you thinking, what?'" she told a Department of Corrections investigator. "You totally got duped by this guy and, you know, it was just embarrassing."

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 he 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. "How could this pattern of conduct go on without others knowing? That may also relate to the culture of silence."

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. That same inmate in 2008 then again rocked the prison when it was learned three more had become involved with him.

The prison launched a lengthy internal investigation.

Only after the the promise that no criminal charges would be coming, and the ill-fated pledge of confidentiality, did the prison workers speak somewhat candidly.

"They need to do something about protecting women from predators like him, I know he's a predator," said the corrections officer who was charged with failing to report the activities. "I know he's done it to several people before and, I didn't know until after the fact, after all this stuff happened, but I found out all about Michael Murphy."

Murphy, who was later transferred to a facility in Glendive, meanwhile, continues to get involved with staff.

Prison officials say an ongoing investigation seems to implicate Murphy in the case of a female food worker caught smuggling contraband into the prison.

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 with 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.

The issue is huge, Mahoney said. When staff are compromised, the potential for harm is "limitless."

 

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