Accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s death by apparent suicide in a Manhattan jail cell on Saturday raised significant questions about whether detention officials made appropriate decisions about his housing status and potential to take his own life.
Epstein’s death is a profound embarrassment for the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the facility, and is sure to anger the Department of Justice, which had just assembled a case against him.
In a statement, federal officials confirmed that Epstein died at 6:30 a.m. Saturday in the Special Housing Unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, a lockup that has held many infamous detainees, from mobster John Gotti to Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Mexican drug kingpin. Officials said only that Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell and added that the FBI would be investigating.
Though confirmed details were scarce, virtually everyone familiar with Epstein’s case had the same question: How could a high-profile inmate implicated in a wide-ranging child sex trafficking ring kill himself, mere weeks after what sounded very much like an earlier attempt?
And yet various news outlets reported that he was not on suicide watch at the time of his death.
Seasoned prison litigators and suicide prevention experts were not shocked that such an event could occur, but they agreed that the apparent suicide raised serious questions about the mental health treatment and evaluation Epstein received at the facility.
“Why, if he had shown suicidality, was he placed in the [Special Housing Unit?]” asked Eric Balaban, a senior staff counsel with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, who has litigated against prisons and jails for more than 25 years.
Balaban described the special housing unit as a “punitive, isolated unit” that was “not appropriate for someone who’s shown recent suicide attempts.”
“The Bureau of Prisons has guidelines that you don’t place prisoners there who have serious mental illness or are potentially suicidal,” he said. “You’re creating a risk.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Local Reporting Makes a Difference
In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.
Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.
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It was reported that Epstein was placed on suicide watch after the previous incident on July 22. According to reports at the time, he was found semi-conscious with bruises around his neck. In order to be cleared to be taken off suicide watch at a federal facility, inmates must go through rigorous, structured interviews.
“It’s conceivable that in three weeks’ time he had stabilized or apparently convinced mental health staff that he was no longer suicidal and they felt confident in a clinical sense to remove him,” said Lindsay M. Hayes, the project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an expert on suicide prevention in prisons and jails.
But Hayes and Balaban agreed that if mental health providers made such a decision, it would come under heavy scrutiny. Typically, inmates at federal facilities who are placed on suicide watch undergo daily visits with a psychiatrist and sometimes a physician’s assistant, they said. The providers would have then had to perform an assessment to determine whether Epstein was still at risk before taking him off suicide watch.
There are varying degrees of suicide watch in federal facilities, with the highest level of precaution being continuous one-on-one observation by an officer assigned to that particular prisoner. A lower level of watch would involve officers taking rounds at 15- or 30-minute intervals to check on the prisoner, according to Balaban and Hayes.
An inmate would be prohibited from possessing clothing, blankets or anything that could be used for self-harm. Balaban said there are suicide blankets and suicide vests that are highly resistant.
“A prisoner like Mr. Epstein, who had apparently already made an attempt to hang himself ... it’s Suicide Prevention 101 for any prisoner that attempts suicide that you don’t give them the means,” Balaban said.
Hayes said suicide watch is a punitive environment. Inmates are locked down and rarely let out of their cells for any reason. They are often stripped of their clothing and placed in a suicide smock. They are given finger foods because they are not allowed to have utensils.
“Because it’s so punitive appearing, many inmates deny that they’re suicidal even though they might be because they want their clothes back. They want to get out of their cell,” he said.
Deborah Golden, a staff attorney at the Human Rights Defense Center who is also a seasoned prison litigator, said the Bureau of Prisons has a long history of inadequate mental healthcare, most notably shortages of psychiatrists on staff.
“They do a bad job at suicide prevention,” Golden said. “They don’t have a humane system for monitoring someone. It’s considered more like a disciplinary infraction: attempting self-harm.”
Hayes said suicide risk assessments can be very challenging for mental health professionals in correctional settings.
“There are so many things that a clinician has to take into account: a person’s background, the charges they’re facing,” he said. “In this case, they have a very high-profile client that they’re assessing. It’s not the typical inmate.”
Laura de las Casas, a prisoner rights advocate based in Washington, D.C., said she inspected about 20 Bureau of Prisons facilities when she served on the DC Corrections Information Council, an independent watchdog group, for three years.
De las Casas, who focused on suicide prevention and mental health during those inspections, said federal facilities are often so understaffed that they are reacting to suicide attempts rather than focusing on preventing them.
“That’s the way they operate,” she said. “That’s why, even though he may have been placed on suicide watch in July, once they believe he won’t commit suicide tomorrow, they place him back in a cell.”
The time at which Epstein was discovered in his cell, 6:30 a.m., indicated to de las Casas that he was found during morning count, and the suicide attempt could have taken place hours earlier.
“It’s that inability to watch someone or monitor someone that makes it impossible for the BOP to actually prevent suicides,” she said.
De las Casas added that it’s generally easier for an inmate to commit suicide in a special housing unit because there’s less movement of officers and other inmates.
Epstein — a multimilliionaire with homes all over the world, a private jet and a taste for luxury — was facing spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted of the sex trafficking charges in his indictment. Additionally, inmates accused of sexually abusing children — as was Epstein — can face harsh treatment at the hands of fellow inmates, and sometimes have to be segregated from the rest of the prison population.
Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University in New Jersey, said that while Epstein’s death raises concerns about how he was handled behind bars, inmate suicides are common in pretrial facilities.
“They are the leading cause of deaths in jails,” said Tartaro, the author of “Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails.”
Even the fact that Epstein had previously been on suicide watch, then moved off of it, is not unusual in jail settings, said Tartaro. Without access to Epstein’s psychological assessments, it’s impossible to know if his case was handled properly, she said.
“The point of suicide watch is to get them through the initial suicide crisis, and then to work on helping the inmate navigate the correctional environment without attempting suicide,” Tartaro said. “There are situations in which the inmate will feel better and then regress and become suicidal again.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation’s jails had a suicide rate of 46 per 100,000 in 2013, the last reported year. That’s higher than the rate in general society, and in prisons, where inmates have been already convicted.
Sen. Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican who has been highly critical of the Justice Department’s handling of Epstein, sent a letter to Barr Saturday saying “given Epstein’s previous attempted suicide, he should have been in a padded room under unbroken, 24/7 constant surveillance.”
The senator added: “Heads must roll.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.