From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Jeffrey Epstein Death Shines Light on Understaffed, Unaccountable Federal Prison System
Date August 25, 2019 12:00 AM
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[Prisons are uniquely closed and inaccessible parts of our
government. When you combine that secrecy, lack of oversight and lack
of transparency with an unpopular, politically powerless and literally
captive population, it’s a recipe for bad outcomes]
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JEFFREY EPSTEIN DEATH SHINES LIGHT ON UNDERSTAFFED, UNACCOUNTABLE
FEDERAL PRISON SYSTEM  
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Ryan J. Reilly
August 15, 2019
Huff Post
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_ Prisons are uniquely closed and inaccessible parts of our
government. When you combine that secrecy, lack of oversight and lack
of transparency with an unpopular, politically powerless and literally
captive population, it’s a recipe for bad outcomes _

The swift accountability that’s taken place is perhaps the only
thing unusual about Jeffrey Epstein’s death at the Metropolitan
Correctional Center in New York City., Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


 

Jeffrey Epstein's apparent suicide inside the federally run
Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan shocked the country. How
could officials allow one of the most high-profile prisoners in the
U.S. to end his life, especially since he had just tried and failed
less than a month ago? Conspiracy theories are everywhere: It must be
murder at the hands of one of Epstein’s powerful and as-yet-unnamed
co-conspirators in his allegedly widespread child sex trafficking
operation. 

But the truth is almost certainly more mundane. “When there’s more
than one possible explanation for an occurrence, the simplest one is
usually correct,”  said Erik Heipt, an attorney who has litigated a
number of jail death lawsuits. “People commit suicide in jails, in
prisons, all the time.”

Jail suicides ― which are almost always preventable
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― have been the No. 1 cause of jail deaths
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each year since at least the turn of the century
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“Tragically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what
happened to Mr. Epstein, and therefore no reason to resort to bizarre
conspiracy theories,” said David Fathi, the director of the American
Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project. “This is just
the, you know, baseline dysfunction of prisons and jails and how
suicide prevention in most prisons and jails is a joke.”

Moreover, the fact Epstein was in the hands of the federal government
doesn’t necessarily mean he was getting superior supervision than he
would at a county jail. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, like many law
enforcement agencies, is badly understaffed and operates largely in
the dark, with an opaque internal affairs system
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that often fails
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to hold officers accountable.

The swift accountability that’s taken place this week, with several
employees already transferred or placed on leave in an investigation
spearheaded by the attorney general himself, is perhaps the only thing
unusual about Epstein’s death. Otherwise, he’s just another grim
data point in the nation’s stunning inability to keep its prisoners
alive.

“IT’S AMAZING HOW OFTEN [RECORDS] ARE FAKED.”

The New York Times reported
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that the two overworked staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit ― one
of whom wasn’t working as a corrections officer but was forced to
take on that role due to staffing shortages ― fell asleep and
falsified records saying they had performed checks as required.

Fake cell checks are “extremely, extremely common” said Heipt.
“In almost every jail death case I’ve handled, you have that.
Often for entire shifts, where a guard is documenting a check ―
prisoner OK, or signing their initials at a particular time during a
12-hour shift. It’s amazing how often those things are faked.” 

“When you pencil-whip shit, that means that you’re falsifying
records,” one BOP employee explained. “If you wanna lie and do
some underhanded shit, you’ve gotta deal with it.” 

BOP union officials have been raising the alarm
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about staffing shortages for years. In a process called
“augmentation,” BOP managers have been forcing people who aren’t
corrections officers to guard inmates. Union officials warned it would
turn deadly.

“My officers are getting mandated on a daily basis,” said Joe
Rojas, a BOP employee and union official who works at a facility in
Florida. “You have officers working doubles three out of five days a
week. That’s just insane.”

“They’re getting bonuses and we’re understaffed,” said one BOP
employee speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to recent
USA Today reporting
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on bonus payouts to prison executives. “What kind of fucking sense
does that make?”

Every inmate should be monitored according to regulations, but
Epstein, in particular, demanded close attention ― not only because
of the sprawling nature of his alleged crimes but because they
involved sex offenses that could have sent him to prison until his
death.

HuffPost’s jail death database
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track jail deaths in the one-year period after Sandra Bland’s death
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in July 2015, includes at least 24 suicides in which the deceased
defendant was facing sex crime charges or was a registered sex
offender. That’s nearly 10% of the suicides included in the
database, which falls short of capturing every jail death that
happened in that timeframe.

At least a dozen of the defendants in the database who died by suicide
were charged in sex crimes that involved minor victims. Federal jail
deaths data, last released when Barack Obama was still president
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doesn’t break down how many local jail inmates who died by suicide
were facing sex-related charges.

Few Consequences For Correctional Officers

Epstein was incarcerated in a federal correctional system that has
struggled for decades to police malfeasance and incompetence from its
officers and staff. It’s a system that fails to hold employees
accountable, and one that union officials say dispenses discipline
unequally. 

“For a long time, the BOP had a reputation of sort of being the gold
standard, being a cut above state prison systems,” said Fathi of the
ACLU. “I see no evidence of that. I have no reason to think that’s
true. I see no reason to think it’s any better than your average
state prison system.”

In a closed system like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where there’s
very little public interaction or transparency, the inmates themselves
are the best way to know if things are amiss — if correctional
officers are being abusive or not doing their jobs. But internal
records, legal filings and interviews with former staff show that a
vast majority of inmate complaints are simply ignored. 

BOP operates more than 100 facilities, employs around 35,000 people,
and incarcerates more than 150,000 human beings. And if you believe
its numbers, next to none of those federal prisoners are ever abused.

The bureau claims to “demonstrate uncompromising ethical conduct”
in all its actions, yet most employee conduct issues are being handled
by local wardens and overseen by BOP’s Office of Internal Affairs,
an office with a staff of around 35 people that has overseen upwards
of 5,000 cases annually in recent years. More serious allegations that
could result in criminal charges are first vetted by the Justice
Department’s Office of the Inspector General, the agency’s
internal watchdog. 

Records obtained by HuffPost
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2017 via a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that very few
inmate complaints were sustained, or confirmed, in a timely matter. In
fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Office of Internal Affairs
logged more than 1,000 abuse of inmate complaints. But the percentage
of complaints sustained, always low, dropped even further in recent
years. Those records — annual reports the Office of Internal Affairs
sent to the Office of the Inspector General — were later uploaded to
BOP’s website, along with reports from the 2016
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There’s lot of interesting data in the reports. But one thing really
sticks out: The system almost never believes inmates who allege they
were abused.

The reports reveal a minuscule number of sustained “abuse of
inmate” complaints each year from 2010 to 2016, often in the single
digits. 

The BOP numbers don’t include those corrections officers who were
indicted in particularly egregious use-of-force cases. Still, the
extraordinarily low numbers in a massive corrections bureaucracy
signal broader issues with BOP’s internal affairs system.

Steve J. Martin, an expert on internal affairs systems, told HuffPost
that BOP’s “incredulous” numbers were not believable and make
clear that “something’s amiss.” When local officials review
complaints, he said, there’s a natural tendency to side with or go
easy on corrections officers. (For this article, HuffPost has
incorporated interviews with experts and former inmates done in 2017.
Statistics are from the most recent available data sets.)

“Some of them just push the paper through and approve everything
that hits their eyes unless it’s a smoking gun, egregious,
we-can’t-bury-this one,” Martin said. “What warden wants to
report to their regional director, ‘Hey, we had five abuses or
excessive incidents of force last month?’ None!”

Overall, a relatively small number of the BOP’s massive workforce is
subject to discipline: The 2017 fiscal year data shows that 19
employees were terminated, six were allowed to retire, 55 resigned, 72
were suspended and 101 received a written reprimand.

A report issued [[link removed]]
15 years ago by DOJ’s inspector general found inconsistencies in the
disciplinary system and that BOP employees generally believed
higher-ranking employees were not subject to the same standards. That
belief endures.

Documents the Justice Department filed in federal court in response to
a lawsuit by a former BOP employee offer some insight into how BOP has
resolved disciplinary cases against other employees at the
Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein died. 

One officer was suspended for a day for failing to follow policy and
provide accurate information during an official investigation, though
a seven-day suspension was recommended. An officer who drove under the
influence was given a letter of reprimand, though a five-day
suspension was recommended. Another officer was suspended for three
calendar days for off-duty misconduct for an argument with his
girlfriend that got “out of hand.” An officer who engaged in
unprofessional conduct and provided an inaccurate statement was
suspended for one day. An officer who got into an altercation while
off-duty and carrying his firearm, which “could have resulted in
loss of life,” was suspended for 21 days.

“Prisons are black boxes. They are uniquely closed and inaccessible
parts of our government,” Fathi said. “When you combine that
secrecy and a lack of oversight and lack of transparency with an
unpopular, politically powerless and literally captive population,
it’s a recipe for bad outcomes.”

It’s a challenge to maintain a high ethical standard in understaffed
facilities with relatively low pay, especially in a competitive
economy. 

“It was well-known at [Federal Correctional Institution] Cumberland
that there were corrections officers who were just robbing the place
blind,” said Kevin Ring, a former federal inmate who now serves a
president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Ring said they were
stealing heavy equipment like lawnmowers, or turkeys at Thanksgiving
that were meant for inmates. He said guards would order equipment that
they didn’t need, and then it would disappear. 

“Who would you tell? For most people, there’s a whistleblower
hotline or whatever, but for inmates, you’re not going to take that
up with this guy’s colleagues,” Ring said. “I just think the
problem is transparency. No one is looking, and they keep the prisons
closed by saying it is a security risk or public safety issue, but I
just think there’s no accountability.”

Fathi said that a “code of silence” discourages staffers from
reporting misconduct, and that problem was particularly large when
it’s inmates’ word against officers. “When corrections officers
use force, it takes place behind closed doors where there are no
witnesses except other officers and prisoners,” he said. The BOP
figures strike him as “totally not credible” for an institution
that incarcerates upwards of 150,000 people.

Piper Kerman, whose book about serving federal prison time, “Orange
Is The New Black,” inspired the Netflix series, told HuffPost in
2017 that there’s a “strong disincentive” to complain about a
staff member’s actions. 

“There’s just this tendency to endure it, because seeking remedy
is a cumbersome, complicated, lengthy process that can draw
retribution,” Kerman said. Early on in the production of “Orange
is the New Black,” Kerman recalled telling creator Jenji Kohan that
the portrayal of the guards was too generous.

“I do remember Jenji was like ‘Oh, Piper says we’re making the
guards too nice.’ There are obviously people who work in
correctional facilities who take their jobs very seriously in terms of
the job of rehabilitation and see and are concerned about [the]
humanity of the people who are there,” Kerman said, adding that it
wasn’t the standard.

“The construct of a prison is predicated on inequality. Prisoners
are prisoners and have few to no rights, and are functioning in this
unequal relationship to anyone who is staff… That kind of inequality
will always, in my opinion, give rise to abuse.” 

“Does the BOP get away with far less scrutiny? I think there’s no
question of that,” Kerman said. “At the end of the day, there’s
just not that much accountability.”

“When you file, they use it against you,” said Jason Hernandez,
who was serving a life term until Obama commuted his sentence
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“If you were an inmate that was causing trouble in the SHU, they
would purposefully put you into the room with one of these individuals
so they could assault you. They’d give the guy a couple of
cigarettes or something. That shit’s so hard to prove.”

Eric Young, the national union president, said there was a “systemic
problem” of untimely investigations at BOP facilities and that
corrections officers would have complaints hanging over their heads
for far too long. 

“I’ve had some cases where an employee has admitted wrongdoing,
and yet the Bureau sits on [it] for a year,” he said. 

Young said it was “not true” that inmate complaints weren’t
taken seriously. “The Bureau will take very seriously and
investigate inmate complaints,” Young said, adding that the process
was very lengthy and methodical. “Discipline is not designed to be
punitive, it’s designed to be corrective,” Young said.

“THEY’RE ALWAYS GONNA PUT IT ON THE SMALL FISH.”

An FBI investigation and inspector general probe into Epstein’s
death are already underway. The Justice Department has also announced
the temporary reassignment of MCC’s warden and has placed two
staffers on administrative leave. Rojas and other employees expect the
Justice Department to scapegoat low-level employees for the
consequences of BOP’s failure to maintain adequate staffing levels.

“You know that old saying, ‘Shit rolls downhill?’ They’re
gonna blame the COs,” Rojas said. “It’s the Department of
Justice under Trump. And I don’t want to get political, but
they’re the ones that instituted the staffing cuts and the hiring
freeze, and now they’re upset based on what they did, because this
is the result of their policies.”

The decision to pull Epstein off suicide watch after a reported
attempt last month will likely come under close scrutiny. One BOP
employee said that suicide watch is an intense and boring job, and
it’s costly because it requires overtime. But going to jail and
facing charges that are likely to send you to prison for the rest of
your life is a traumatic experience, especially for someone who lived
a high-flying life like Epstein.

“He’s a billionaire. Think about the culture shock, going from
owning an island in the Caribbean to a 6-foot-9 cell. That is
traumatic with any human being,” Rojas said.

“They’re always gonna put it on the small fish,” one BOP
employee told HuffPost. “At the end of the day, that guy shouldn’t
have been pulled off suicide watch … What about management? What
about the warden and the chief psychologist?” 

“There’s no accountability for these managers,” the employee
said. “[But] our line staff are going to get their heads chopped off
because they’ve been working so much fucking overtime that they fell
asleep.”

_Ryan J. Reilly is Senior Justice Reporter for Huff Post_

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