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Editorial

The Real Takeaway from Epstein’s Apparent Suicide

August 15, 2019

Earlier this week, Jeffrey Epstein died in federal custody in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (“MCC”) in lower Manhattan.

Epstein was arrested in New Jersey and charged with sex trafficking, in connection with allegations that he recruited young girls for abuse at his homes in New York and Florida. If convicted, he could have faced 45 years in prison.

On July 23, three weeks before his death, Epstein had been found semiconscious in his cell with marks around his neck – though it was unclear whether the marks were self-inflicted or the result of an attack. Regardless, prison officials investigated the injury as a possible suicide attempt and put Epstein on suicide watch – i.e., constant monitoring by prison personnel.

Not even one week after this incident, Epstein was taken off suicide watch. He was transferred to the special housing unit of the New York prison where he was supposed to be closely monitored. The guards, whether intentionally or accidentally, failed to adequately surveil Epstein in his new location.

Based on their actions, it seems as though the New York Department of Corrections believed that six days is enough time and one psychiatric evaluation is enough evidence to determine that an individual is no longer at risk of harming him or herself.

Something is very wrong here – and it’s not one of the many conspiracy theories that has inundated social media over the past week. (As an aside, it was particularly unhelpful and dangerous that the President of the United States retweeted one such conspiracy theory – which has no basis in fact – stating that former President Bill Clinton had some involvement in Epstein’s death.

As presidential history professor at Princeton Julian Zelizer said, “we expect some semblance of truth from the Oval Office and sending out conspiracy theories like this is a new level of danger.”)

Epstein’s death really underscores the long-standing problems throughout the Bureau of Prisons. A prison official who spoke with The New York Times said that the two guards who were on duty when Epstein committed suicide were both working overtime, and one was working his fifth consecutive shift.

In another interview, this time with the Washington Post, the president of the union that represents MCC’s employees said that the MCC has 70% less correctional officers than it should have.

For more than a decade, this union has been warning of what it describes as ‘unsound’ and ‘dangerous’ staffing levels at prisons around the country. In general population units, there’s often just one officer to deal with more than 125 inmates.

It is sad that it takes the apparent suicide of a high profile registered sex offender to draw attention to the serious problems our correctional facilities face.

This is not the way that law enforcement agencies in the United States should be functioning. Something needs to change. Fast.

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