Epstein suicide casts harsh spotlight on troubled fed prison system
WASHINGTON–The apparent suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, found dead in a New York federal prison cell early Saturday, has cast a jarring spotlight on the nation’s largest prison system plagued for years by dangerous staffing shortages, violence and widespread sexual harassment of female officers.
Earlier this year, Attorney General William Barr said the Bureau of Prisons was struggling to fill up to 5,000 vacancies, a shortfall worsened by recent budget cuts and a government shutdown.
Since last spring, following the abrupt departure of Director Mark Inch, the agency has been without permanent leadership. And even as Barr ordered a Justice Department investigation into Epstein’s death, federal authorities were continuing to review the October murder of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger at a federal facility in West Virginia.
“We’ve got a serious problem,” said Eric Young, national president of the federal prison workers union.
Indeed, union officials and federal lawmakers were sounding the alarm years before Epstein’s death, highlighting operations in which both staffers and inmates have been placed in the cross-hairs mostly due to deep staffing shortages.
Only days before Bulger’s murder, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joined by four other lawmakers from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, warned then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the looming dangers. Manchin referred to the 2013 murder of officer Eric Williams at the United States Penitentiary Canaan in Pennsylvania and the 2018 killings of two inmates at the Federal Correctional Center in Hazelton, West Virginia, the same facility where Bulger was beaten to death.
The lawmakers’ letter suggested that the staffing shortages and the practice of deploying civilian prison workers–teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and counselors–to fill officer vacancies only exacerbated the risk.
The practice, known as “augmentation,” has been outlined in a series of stories by USA TODAY, beginning in 2016. Prison officials have defended the deployment of civilian staffers to guard duty, contending that all employees receive security training as a condition of their employment.
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“We are writing to express our deep concerns about the Bureau of Prisons’ staffing practices, particularly the over-reliance on augmentation and the failure to follow clear congressional directives to hire more full-time correctional officers,” the lawmakers wrote.
“We share your belief that the safety of staff, inmates, and the public is the highest priority for the BOP. Unfortunately, our states,” the lawmakers said, “West Virginia and Pennsylvania, have seen firsthand how dangerous continual under-staffing can be to both BOP staff and the inmates they supervise.”
Two days after the letter was sent, Bulger was found fatally beaten in his Hazelton cell. The incident immediately prompted a wave of questions about prison officials’ decision to transfer the 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound inmate from Florida to the West Virginia facility where he was killed hours after arrival. At the time, the Hazelton facility also was plagued by officer vacancies.
The murder investigation has focused on two fellow inmates, including a Mafia enforcer, who were assigned to solitary confinement immediately after Bulger’s body was found.
The conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, union officials said, closely resemble those at Hazelton at the time of Bulger’s killing.
Serene Gregg, the local prison workers’ union president at MCC, said officer vacancies are running “in excess” of 30 positions. At the time of Epstein’s death, Gregg said prison officials were using civilian staffers, including teachers, counselors and cooks, to cover officer shifts.
The officers who are working, Gregg said, are pulling three to four overtime shifts a week, pushing some work weeks to 70 hours or more.
As recently as last week, Gregg said union officials raised concerns with prison authorities about the over-extended and ill-equipped workforce.
“You have people working who are extremely exhausted and others who are not trained to do the work,” Gregg said, adding that the staffers who discovered Epstein had not been regularly assigned to that part of the detention center.
“They (prison officials) have been playing a dangerous game for a long time. And it’s not just at MCC, it’s going on across the country.”
Barr, in a Monday address to a policing conference, suggested that Gregg’s assessment was not an exaggeration and vowed a full investigation.
“I was appalled… and frankly angry, to learn of the MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner,” Barr said in New Orleans. “We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and that demand a thorough investigation The FBI and the (Justice Department’s) inspector general are already doing just that. We will get to the bottom of what happened at the MCC and we will hold people accountable for this failure.
“Let me assure you that this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein. Any co-conspirators should not rest easy. The victims deserve justice, and we will ensure they get it.”