Written by Ali Watkins, Katie Benner and Danielle Ivory
One of the two people guarding Jeffrey Epstein when he apparently hanged himself in a federal jail cell was not a full-fledged correctional officer, and neither guard had checked on Epstein for several hours before he was discovered, prison and law-enforcement officials said.
Those details emerged on Monday as Attorney General William Barr sharply criticized the management of the federal jail in Manhattan where Epstein, who was accused of sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls, was found dead Saturday morning.
“We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation,” said Barr, who, as the country’s top law enforcement official, is responsible for federal prisons.
“We will get to the bottom of what happened,” he added. “There will be accountability.”
Barr did not offer additional information about the problems at the jail, but questions have been raised about why Epstein had been taken off suicide watch just days after apparently trying to kill himself and then was left alone in a cell without close supervision.
Barr also said Epstein’s suicide would not halt the investigation into other people who might have helped him traffic teenage girls for sex. On Monday, FBI agents and New York detectives raided Epstein’s private, 70-acre island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, looking for documents, photographs, videos, computers and other materials, people briefed on the matter said.
“Any co-conspirators should not rest easy,” Barr said. “The victims deserve justice and they will get it.”
No correctional officer had checked on Epstein for several hours before he was found, even though guards were supposed to look in on prisoners in the protective unit where he was housed every half-hour, two law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the detention said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In addition, only one of the two people guarding the Special Housing Unit — known as 9 South — normally worked as a correctional officer, according to three prison officials with knowledge of the case. The officials did not say what sort of job the other employee usually worked.
A New York Times investigation published last year detailed this practice, under which federal prisons are so strapped for correctional officers that they regularly compel teachers, nurses, secretaries and other support staff members to step in. The practice has grown at some prisons as the Trump administration has curtailed the hiring of correctional officers.
Many of these staff members receive only a few weeks’ training in correctional work, and, while required by contract to serve as substitutes, are often uncomfortable in the roles. Even workers who previously held correctional positions have said the practice was unsettling because fewer colleagues were on hand to provide backup if things turned ugly.
Epstein’s death came just two weeks after he had been taken off suicide watch at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, where he apparently had tried to kill himself on July 23, officials said.
He was being held at the detention center awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges. He had been accused of luring dozens of underage girls into giving him erotic massages and engaging in other sexual acts at his mansions in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
“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 conference in New Orleans for the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police.
That Epstein was taken off suicide watch and left unsupervised long enough to have apparently taken his own life has sparked a public outcry, prompting criticism of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons, which operates the Manhattan jail. Barr announced Saturday that both the FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general would each open probes into the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death.
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.
Union officials said that for more than a year officials in Washington had been made aware of a severe staffing shortage at the facility in the wake of a federal hiring freeze. One of the guards on the unit where Epstein died had been working overtime for five straight days, while the other had been forced to work overtime that day, a union official said.
“The Council of Prison Locals has been sounding the alarm about the hiring freeze,” said Eric Young, president of the union that represents federal prison workers across the country.
An autopsy was conducted by the city’s medical examiner Sunday, but a final determination is pending. At the request of Epstein’s lawyers, a private pathologist was permitted to attend the examination, which the city’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Barbara Sampson, called a “routine practice.”
Since leaving suicide watch on July 29, Epstein had been housed in 9 South, a secure housing unit in one of the prison’s most restrictive wings. His lifeless body was found in his cell around 6:30 a.m., by a guard conducting morning rounds. He had used a bedsheet to hang himself, one official said.
Epstein was being housed alone. Under normal procedures, he should have had a cellmate, but the inmate housed with him had been recently transferred and had not been replaced, several officials said.
According to Bureau of Prisons’ policy, several high-ranking prison officials would have had to have approved Epstein’s removal from the facility’s suicide prevention program, including the prison’s chief psychologist.
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