For anyone familiar with Bureau of Prisons standard operating procedures, Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide is more than mysterious; it is unfathomable.
The 66-year-old accused sex trafficker was found dead in his prison cell at the Metropolitan Correction Center on Saturday morning, apparently after having hanged himself.
The Bureau of Prisons, the federal agency that runs the corrections center, has said the FBI will investigate.
It had better.
Epstein’s death almost certainly means that astounding blunders occurred, perhaps by multiple personnel at the Bureau of Prisons.
If any prisoner in the federal system should have been a candidate for suspicion of suicide, it was the high-profile and disgraced Epstein. All administrative and structural measures should have been in place to ensure it could not happen. And yet it apparently did.
First, consider the Metropolitan Correction Center itself. It is a high-rise, forbidding administrative detention facility in the south of Manhattan. Its population consists almost entirely of prisoners, like Epstein, awaiting trial in federal court in Manhattan. It has been referred to as the “Guantanamo of New York” for its stringent security measures. It is the facility of choice for notorious federal defendants, often in special administrative segregation units, having previously housed John Gotti, Bernard Madoff, Omar Abdel Rahman and, recently, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
In other words, it is the very place to put a high-profile and potentially suicidal defendant such as Epstein.
Second, consider the Bureau of Prison’s suicide prevention protocol. Epstein was found last month unconscious in his cell with marks on his neck. If he was not on suicide watch, it would be astonishing. Yet if he were on suicide watch, his death would be virtually inconceivable.
The bureau’s suicide prevention protocol entails, first and foremost, human eyes on the prisoner 24 hours a day. It also requires a strict deprivation of anything — shoelaces, sheets, pillowcases — that could possibly be used to hang oneself. It also requires disabling anything that could be used to tie a noose — vents, sprinkler heads, etc.
Finally, we are not talking about inexperienced yokels. Bureau personnel, especially at the Metropolitan Correction Center, are the best professionals in the corrections industry, and they receive special training in administrating suicide prevention. Who better to guard against such a horrific development?
At this point, questions abound, and the bureau has to address them promptly.
The first: Was Epstein on suicide watch, and if not, why not? Among the reports cascading out in the few hours since Epstein’s body was found are anonymous statements that Epstein had been on suicide watch but was taken off it. If so, the decision to remove him appears to have been a colossal error that must be thoroughly probed.
The second: How exactly did Epstein manage to kill himself, and why exactly was it that he had access to the tools?
Third, is there a video of Epstein’s cell at the crucial time? There should be, and it will reveal exactly how and when Epstein killed himself.
And none of this begins to address the royal mess it leaves in the efforts to take stock of Epstein’s crimes and their prior slap-on-the-wrist treatment, nor the shambles in which it leaves Epstein’s victims.
Almost certainly, we will know a lot more in a few days. But it seems certain that when the facts are known, this will stand as one of the biggest black eyes in the history of the Bureau of Prisons.
Harry Litman, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general. He teaches constitutional law and national security law at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law and the University of California at San Diego Department of Political Science.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.