Federal NY lockup draws new scrutiny in Epstein death
The lockup is so short-staffed that the BOP is offering correctional officers a $10,000 bonus to transfer there from other federal lockups
By Michael Balsamo, Jim Mustian and Michael R. Sisak
NEW YORK — Attorney General William Barr said Monday that there were "serious irregularities" at the federal jail where Jeffrey Epstein took his own life as he awaited trial on charges he sexually abused underage girls.
The 66-year-old financier was found Saturday morning in his cell at the chronically short-staffed Metropolitan Correctional Center, in a unit known for holding notorious prisoners under extremely tight security.
"I was appalled, and indeed the whole department was, and frankly angry to learn of the MCC's failure to adequately secure this prisoner," Barr said at a police conference in New Orleans. "We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation. The FBI and the office of inspector general are doing just that."
He added: "We will get to the bottom of what happened and there will be accountability."
The manner in which Epstein killed himself has not been announced. An autopsy was performed Sunday, but New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said investigators were awaiting further information.
A private pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, observed the autopsy at the request of Epstein's lawyers. Baden was the city's chief medical examiner in the late 1970s and has been called as an expert witness in high-profile cases, including O.J. Simpson's 1994 murder trial.
Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found in his cell a little over two weeks ago with bruises on his neck, a person familiar with the jail's operations told The Associated Press. But he had been taken off the suicide watch at the end of July, said the person, who wasn't authorized to discuss jail operations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Inmates on suicide watch are subjected to 24 hours per day of "direct, continuous observation," according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy. They are also issued tear-resistant clothing and placed in cells that are stripped of furniture or fixtures they could use to take their own lives.
After being returned to the jail's special housing unit, Epstein was supposed to have been checked on by a guard every 30 minutes, but that safeguard was not followed the night before his death, The New York Times reported Sunday, citing a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.
On the morning of Epstein's apparent suicide, guards on his unit were working overtime shifts to make up for staffing shortages, the person familiar with the matter told the AP. The person said one guard was working a fifth straight day of overtime and another was working mandatory overtime.
Epstein's death cut short a prosecution that could have pulled back the curtain on his activities and his connections to celebrities and presidents, though Barr vowed Monday that the case will continue "against anyone who was complicit with Epstein."
"Any co-conspirators should not rest easy. The victims deserve justice and they will get it," he said.
Epstein had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month.
Epstein's death is the latest black eye for the Bureau of Prisons, which was already was under fire over the October beating death of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger at a federal prison in West Virginia.
Taken together, the deaths underscore "serious issues surrounding a lack of leadership" within the bureau, said Cameron Lindsay, a former warden who ran three federal lockups, including the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
A defense attorney for Epstein, Marc Fernich, also faulted jail officials, saying they "recklessly put Mr. Epstein in harm's way" and failed to protect him.
Staffing shortages worsened by a partial government shutdown prompted inmates at the New York City jail to stage a hunger strike in January after they were denied family and lawyer visits.
Eight months later, the jail remains so short-staffed that the BOP is offering guards a $10,000 bonus to transfer there from other federal lockups.
Meanwhile, the French government called on prosecutors to open an investigation into Epstein's links to France. U.S. authorities have said Epstein had a home in Paris and used a fake Austrian passport to travel to France in the 1980s.
In a statement's France's secretaries of state for women's rights and protection of children said it is "fundamental" to launch an investigation in France so that Epstein's death "doesn't deprive the victims of the justice they deserve" and to protect other girls from "this kind of predator."
The Paris prosecutor's office did not immediately comment.