By now, the entire world has heard that Jeffrey Epstein was found unresponsive in his prison cell in the early morning hours on Saturday and later declared dead at the hospital. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (the office that was prosecuting Epstein) both issued press releases stating that Epstein died of an “apparent suicide.”
But for the internet, that was hardly acceptable. I don’t mean just some random Twitter accounts, either. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted that Epstein’s death was “predictably … Russian.”
A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell. How predictably…Russian.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) August 10, 2019
Another high-profile person tweeted that maybe Epstein isn’t dead at all, and that the photos of Epstein taken at the hospital don’t actually look like Epstein! Yet another person with a high-follower account on Twitter asked how the Department of Justice has been able to keep El Chapo safe and not Epstein.
To be sure, some of the conspiracy theory tweets are just jokes. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek Clinton takes. Yes, some were even funny.
But let’s back up for a minute so I can present some factual background information. Epstein was awaiting trial in downtown Manhattan on federal charges of sex-trafficking. He was in a place called the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC). The MCC is part of the BOP, and a federal pre-trial detention center.
For the most part, the MCC houses individuals awaiting trial or sentencing. Because the crimes alleged to have been committed by the inmates run the gamut from murder to financial frauds, the facility is run as a high-security detention center.
Epstein, like other high-profile inmates (think El Chapo), was placed in the Special Housing Unit often referred to by its abbreviation, SHU. In Epstein’s case, this was likely for his own safety, as the BOP would not want someone with his notoriety or facing the charges he was around other inmates. Other inmates end up in the SHU because of some sort of prison infraction—maybe they were in a fight or are being investigated for having an illegal substance.
The SHU at the MCC is two floors, a split-level celled area. It is governed by strict conditions that require attorney general approval. An inmate in SHU is typically locked in his cell most of the day. Unlike a regular prison cell with bars, a SHU cell only has a small window. Most inmates don’t like the SHU because of its isolation and severe conditions.
Back in 2017, The New York Times published an article about the SHU at the MCC after El Chapo was sent there. One former inmate described it as “less hospitable than Guantánamo Bay,” where he had been also held.
There were reports that Epstein tried to kill himself shortly after his remand to custody. There were also reports he was attacked by an inmate, and even claims that he paid someone to beat him up, hoping it would get him released from jail. Whatever the reason, it has now been reported that Epstein was placed on suicide watch for five days after the alleged failed attempt.
For a suicide watch, Epstein would be removed from the SHU and placed on a different floor. At the MCC, suicide watch is typically conducted by other inmates, who receive training. For four-hour shifts, the observing inmate sits on an elevated chair in front of the cell and every 15 minutes takes notations of his observations. For example, he may note the inmate is sleeping, eating, or even yelling. Each day, the prison psychologist checks on and speaks to the inmate on suicide watch.
To be removed from suicide watch, the prison psychologist would have to approve it and write a report of his or her decision. Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfled tweeted about it here:
Follow-up on that:
Various reports state that Epstein had been removed from suicide watch.
— Adam Klasfeld (@KlasfeldReports) August 10, 2019
It has been reported that Epstein was no longer on suicide watch when he died, so there is likely a paper trail about why he was taken off suicide watch. If he spent those five days on suicide watch on his best behavior and acted perfectly normal, it would not surprise me if a determination was made that he was no longer a threat to take his own life.
Let’s not forget who we’re talking about here: a man who convinced one of the richest men in the country to give him complete control over his vast fortune. (Google “Epstein and Lex Wexner” if you’re not sure to what I am referring.) Do I think Epstein could talk himself off suicide watch? Absolutely. Should Epstein have been taken off suicide watch? I don’t know, and won’t pretend otherwise.
After being removed from suicide watch, Epstein was likely placed back in SHU. NBC reported that he was alone in his cell when he was found unresponsive. Does a guard sit outside every cell on the SHU? No. Typically every 30 minutes a corrections officer does the rounds and checks on each inmate. An anonymous law enforcement source told The New York Times “Epstein should have been checked on by guards in his cell every 30 minutes, but that didn’t happen the night before his apparent suicide.”
The MCC has been notoriously understaffed for some time now. Inmates have reported that they have been locked in their cells all weekend because of staff shortages, and, as I tweeted, even weekend legal visits are sometimes canceled for the same reason.
Because of the short staff issues, corrections officers at the MCC often work double shifts. Was the corrections officer covering the SHU that morning in the middle of a double and perhaps fell asleep? There are cameras throughout the MCC, and I assure you they are being reviewed. An anonymous source told the Associated Press on Sunday “the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s Special Housing Unit was staffed with one guard working a fifth straight day of overtime and another who was working mandatory overtime.”
Twitter’s Popehat (who blocked this writer on Twitter for whatever reason—likely my association with this publication), did a good thread about the prison system and how most people have flawed views and faulty assumptions about how the system works. I encourage you to read it.
I get it. Epstein is one of the most famous and controversial prisoners in the world, a focus of immense media/political attention, and recently may have attempted suicide.
Therefore, you think, it is extremely implausible that jail officials would allow him to kill himself./1
— WhatFreshHellIsThisHat (@Popehat) August 10, 2019
I’ll add that mental health treatment in a jail setting is often woefully inadequate. So for someone who has experience with how bad it can be, it simply does not surprise me that this happened.
I think at the end of the day we will all learn that Epstein was likely able to kill himself because of gross incompetence. If and when the results of the DOJ investigation are disclosed, for the conspiracy theorists, it will go the way the Robert Mueller report went for the #resistance—a big dud. Right now, anyone, especially lawyers, peddling such nonsense should be embarrassed. There has not been one credible piece of evidence that Epstein was murdered.
The amount of misinformation floating around, and from seemingly reputable sources, is also very troubling. For example, a former U.S. attorney tweeted that there would be video of Epstein’s suicide.
There should be — and almost certainly is — video of Epstein’s suicide at MCC. One hopes it is complete, conclusive, and secured.
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) August 10, 2019
This is simply not correct. There are no surveillance cameras inside each individual SHU jail cell and there are no cameras pointed into the small windows of each cell in the SHU. So if that’s indeed where Epstein took his life, there would not be video evidence.
I saw Epstein a few times at the jail on the attorney visit floor. Regardless about how you feel about him as a person, the prison system failed him. It also failed his victims. Things should change, but they likely won’t. I hate to be pessimistic, but change rarely happens in these institutions, and I don’t expect this time to be any different.
@beyondreasdoubt is a criminal defense attorney in New York City. You can find her musings on Twitter.