Jeffrey Epstein Death Shines Light on Understaffed, Unaccountable Federal Prison System
Jeffrey Epstein's apparent suicide inside the federally run Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan shocked the country. How could officials allow one of the most high-profile prisoners in the U.S. to end his life, especially since he had just tried and failed less than a month ago? Conspiracy theories are everywhere: It must be murder at the hands of one of Epstein’s powerful and as-yet-unnamed co-conspirators in his allegedly widespread child sex trafficking operation.
But the truth is almost certainly more mundane. “When there’s more than one possible explanation for an occurrence, the simplest one is usually correct,” said Erik Heipt, an attorney who has litigated a number of jail death lawsuits. “People commit suicide in jails, in prisons, all the time.”
“Tragically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what happened to Mr. Epstein, and therefore no reason to resort to bizarre conspiracy theories,” said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project. “This is just the, you know, baseline dysfunction of prisons and jails and how suicide prevention in most prisons and jails is a joke.”
Moreover, the fact Epstein was in the hands of the federal government doesn’t necessarily mean he was getting superior supervision than he would at a county jail. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, like many law enforcement agencies, is badly understaffed and operates largely in the dark, with an opaque internal affairs system that often fails to hold officers accountable.
The swift accountability that’s taken place this week, with several employees already transferred or placed on leave in an investigation spearheaded by the attorney general himself, is perhaps the only thing unusual about Epstein’s death. Otherwise, he’s just another grim data point in the nation’s stunning inability to keep its prisoners alive.
“It’s amazing how often [records] are faked.”
The New York Times reported that the two overworked staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit ― one of whom wasn’t working as a corrections officer but was forced to take on that role due to staffing shortages ― fell asleep and falsified records saying they had performed checks as required.
Fake cell checks are “extremely, extremely common” said Heipt. “In almost every jail death case I’ve handled, you have that. Often for entire shifts, where a guard is documenting a check ― prisoner OK, or signing their initials at a particular time during a 12-hour shift. It’s amazing how often those things are faked.”
“When you pencil-whip shit, that means that you’re falsifying records,” one BOP employee explained. “If you wanna lie and do some underhanded shit, you’ve gotta deal with it.”
BOP union officials have been raising the alarm about staffing shortages for years. In a process called “augmentation,” BOP managers have been forcing people who aren’t corrections officers to guard inmates. Union officials warned it would turn deadly.
“My officers are getting mandated on a daily basis,” said Joe Rojas, a BOP employee and union official who works at a facility in Florida. “You have officers working doubles three out of five days a week. That’s just insane.”
“They’re getting bonuses and we’re understaffed,” said one BOP employee speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to recent USA Today reporting on bonus payouts to prison executives. “What kind of fucking sense does that make?”
Every inmate should be monitored according to regulations, but Epstein, in particular, demanded close attention ― not only because of the sprawling nature of his alleged crimes but because they involved sex offenses that could have sent him to prison until his death.
HuffPost’s jail death database, which sought to track jail deaths in the one-year period after Sandra Bland’s death in July 2015, includes at least 24 suicides in which the deceased defendant was facing sex crime charges or was a registered sex offender. That’s nearly 10% of the suicides included in the database, which falls short of capturing every jail death that happened in that timeframe.
At least a dozen of the defendants in the database who died by suicide were charged in sex crimes that involved minor victims. Federal jail deaths data, last released when Barack Obama was still president, doesn’t break down how many local jail inmates who died by suicide were facing sex-related charges.
Few Consequences For Correctional Officers
Epstein was incarcerated in a federal correctional system that has struggled for decades to police malfeasance and incompetence from its officers and staff. It’s a system that fails to hold employees accountable, and one that union officials say dispenses discipline unequally.
“For a long time, the BOP had a reputation of sort of being the gold standard, being a cut above state prison systems,” said Fathi of the ACLU. “I see no evidence of that. I have no reason to think that’s true. I see no reason to think it’s any better than your average state prison system.”
In a closed system like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where there’s very little public interaction or transparency, the inmates themselves are the best way to know if things are amiss — if correctional officers are being abusive or not doing their jobs. But internal records, legal filings and interviews with former staff show that a vast majority of inmate complaints are simply ignored.
BOP operates more than 100 facilities, employs around 35,000 people, and incarcerates more than 150,000 human beings. And if you believe its numbers, next to none of those federal prisoners are ever abused.
The bureau claims to “demonstrate uncompromising ethical conduct” in all its actions, yet most employee conduct issues are being handled by local wardens and overseen by BOP’s Office of Internal Affairs, an office with a staff of around 35 people that has overseen upwards of 5,000 cases annually in recent years. More serious allegations that could result in criminal charges are first vetted by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog.
Records obtained by HuffPost in 2017 via a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that very few inmate complaints were sustained, or confirmed, in a timely matter. In fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Office of Internal Affairs logged more than 1,000 abuse of inmate complaints. But the percentage of complaints sustained, always low, dropped even further in recent years. Those records — annual reports the Office of Internal Affairs sent to the Office of the Inspector General — were later uploaded to BOP’s website, along with reports from the 2016 and 2017 fiscal year.
There’s lot of interesting data in the reports. But one thing really sticks out: The system almost never believes inmates who allege they were abused.
The reports reveal a minuscule number of sustained “abuse of inmate” complaints each year from 2010 to 2016, often in the single digits.
The BOP numbers don’t include those corrections officers who were indicted in particularly egregious use-of-force cases. Still, the extraordinarily low numbers in a massive corrections bureaucracy signal broader issues with BOP’s internal affairs system.
Steve J. Martin, an expert on internal affairs systems, told HuffPost that BOP’s “incredulous” numbers were not believable and make clear that “something’s amiss.” When local officials review complaints, he said, there’s a natural tendency to side with or go easy on corrections officers. (For this article, HuffPost has incorporated interviews with experts and former inmates done in 2017. Statistics are from the most recent available data sets.)
“Some of them just push the paper through and approve everything that hits their eyes unless it’s a smoking gun, egregious, we-can’t-bury-this one,” Martin said. “What warden wants to report to their regional director, ‘Hey, we had five abuses or excessive incidents of force last month?’ None!”
Overall, a relatively small number of the BOP’s massive workforce is subject to discipline: The 2017 fiscal year data shows that 19 employees were terminated, six were allowed to retire, 55 resigned, 72 were suspended and 101 received a written reprimand.
A report issued 15 years ago by DOJ’s inspector general found inconsistencies in the disciplinary system and that BOP employees generally believed higher-ranking employees were not subject to the same standards. That belief endures.
Documents the Justice Department filed in federal court in response to a lawsuit by a former BOP employee offer some insight into how BOP has resolved disciplinary cases against other employees at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein died.
One officer was suspended for a day for failing to follow policy and provide accurate information during an official investigation, though a seven-day suspension was recommended. An officer who drove under the influence was given a letter of reprimand, though a five-day suspension was recommended. Another officer was suspended for three calendar days for off-duty misconduct for an argument with his girlfriend that got “out of hand.” An officer who engaged in unprofessional conduct and provided an inaccurate statement was suspended for one day. An officer who got into an altercation while off-duty and carrying his firearm, which “could have resulted in loss of life,” was suspended for 21 days.
“Prisons are black boxes. They are uniquely closed and inaccessible parts of our government,” Fathi said. “When you combine that secrecy and a lack of oversight and lack of transparency with an unpopular, politically powerless and literally captive population, it’s a recipe for bad outcomes.”
It’s a challenge to maintain a high ethical standard in understaffed facilities with relatively low pay, especially in a competitive economy.
“It was well-known at [Federal Correctional Institution] Cumberland that there were corrections officers who were just robbing the place blind,” said Kevin Ring, a former federal inmate who now serves a president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Ring said they were stealing heavy equipment like lawnmowers, or turkeys at Thanksgiving that were meant for inmates. He said guards would order equipment that they didn’t need, and then it would disappear.
“Who would you tell? For most people, there’s a whistleblower hotline or whatever, but for inmates, you’re not going to take that up with this guy’s colleagues,” Ring said. “I just think the problem is transparency. No one is looking, and they keep the prisons closed by saying it is a security risk or public safety issue, but I just think there’s no accountability.”
Fathi said that a “code of silence” discourages staffers from reporting misconduct, and that problem was particularly large when it’s inmates’ word against officers. “When corrections officers use force, it takes place behind closed doors where there are no witnesses except other officers and prisoners,” he said. The BOP figures strike him as “totally not credible” for an institution that incarcerates upwards of 150,000 people.
Piper Kerman, whose book about serving federal prison time, “Orange Is The New Black,” inspired the Netflix series, told HuffPost in 2017 that there’s a “strong disincentive” to complain about a staff member’s actions.
“There’s just this tendency to endure it, because seeking remedy is a cumbersome, complicated, lengthy process that can draw retribution,” Kerman said. Early on in the production of “Orange is the New Black,” Kerman recalled telling creator Jenji Kohan that the portrayal of the guards was too generous.
“I do remember Jenji was like ‘Oh, Piper says we’re making the guards too nice.’ There are obviously people who work in correctional facilities who take their jobs very seriously in terms of the job of rehabilitation and see and are concerned about [the] humanity of the people who are there,” Kerman said, adding that it wasn’t the standard.
“The construct of a prison is predicated on inequality. Prisoners are prisoners and have few to no rights, and are functioning in this unequal relationship to anyone who is staff… That kind of inequality will always, in my opinion, give rise to abuse.”
“Does the BOP get away with far less scrutiny? I think there’s no question of that,” Kerman said. “At the end of the day, there’s just not that much accountability.”
“When you file, they use it against you,” said Jason Hernandez, who was serving a life term until Obama commuted his sentence. “If you were an inmate that was causing trouble in the SHU, they would purposefully put you into the room with one of these individuals so they could assault you. They’d give the guy a couple of cigarettes or something. That shit’s so hard to prove.”
Eric Young, the national union president, said there was a “systemic problem” of untimely investigations at BOP facilities and that corrections officers would have complaints hanging over their heads for far too long.
“I’ve had some cases where an employee has admitted wrongdoing, and yet the Bureau sits on [it] for a year,” he said.
Young said it was “not true” that inmate complaints weren’t taken seriously. “The Bureau will take very seriously and investigate inmate complaints,” Young said, adding that the process was very lengthy and methodical. “Discipline is not designed to be punitive, it’s designed to be corrective,” Young said.
“They’re always gonna put it on the small fish.”
An FBI investigation and inspector general probe into Epstein’s death are already underway. The Justice Department has also announced the temporary reassignment of MCC’s warden and has placed two staffers on administrative leave. Rojas and other employees expect the Justice Department to scapegoat low-level employees for the consequences of BOP’s failure to maintain adequate staffing levels.
“You know that old saying, ‘Shit rolls downhill?’ They’re gonna blame the COs,” Rojas said. “It’s the Department of Justice under Trump. And I don’t want to get political, but they’re the ones that instituted the staffing cuts and the hiring freeze, and now they’re upset based on what they did, because this is the result of their policies.”
The decision to pull Epstein off suicide watch after a reported attempt last month will likely come under close scrutiny. One BOP employee said that suicide watch is an intense and boring job, and it’s costly because it requires overtime. But going to jail and facing charges that are likely to send you to prison for the rest of your life is a traumatic experience, especially for someone who lived a high-flying life like Epstein.
“He’s a billionaire. Think about the culture shock, going from owning an island in the Caribbean to a 6-foot-9 cell. That is traumatic with any human being,” Rojas said.
“They’re always gonna put it on the small fish,” one BOP employee told HuffPost. “At the end of the day, that guy shouldn’t have been pulled off suicide watch … What about management? What about the warden and the chief psychologist?”
“There’s no accountability for these managers,” the employee said. “[But] our line staff are going to get their heads chopped off because they’ve been working so much fucking overtime that they fell asleep.”
Ryan J. Reilly is Senior Justice Reporter for Huff Post