As his boss keeps retweeting nutty conspiracy theories, Attorney General William Barr is reportedly demanding updates every three hours on how Jeffrey Epstein managed to hang himself in the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
“We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation,” Barr told the press on Monday.
Barr already had at least part of the answer. He testified before Congress in April that he was aware the Bureau of Prisons is dangerously understaffed. Corrections officers were being required to work as many as 70 hours a week. And a policy called “augmentation” was pressing clerical, maintenance, teaching, counseling and culinary employees into service as corrections officers.
“I think this is an area where we have stumbled,” Barr said then.
Barr said that part of the problem was a hiring freeze.
“Which I ended yesterday,” he added.
“Oh good,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, which she had noted is the home of United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, where three inmates were murdered in seven months last year, including the gangster Whitey Bulger.
Following the Bulger murder, the corrections officers’ union, part of the American Federation of Government Employees, cited both understaffing and augmentation as major factors in such a sorry state of security at Hazelton that Bulger was beaten to death there less than 24 hours after his arrival.
The union had specifically warned about understaffing and augmentation at the MCC more than a year ago. The problems have persisted long after Barr’s lifting of the hiring freeze.
“Things just didn’t change,” Serene Gregg, president of AFGE Local 3148, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “They just do not have enough officers in the facility.”
If Barr were to ask her how Epstein was able to commit suicide, she would no doubt repeat what she said to The Daily Beast.
“This was inevitable,” she reasoned. “If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else.”
Gregg reported that officers often complete a double shift totaling 16 hours only to find that their relief has not yet arrived. They then have to work another hour or two, for a total of 17 or even 18.
“That is our normal,” she said.
Anybody who refuses what is termed “mandatory overtime” faces disciplinary action, whatever their responsibilities at home.
“You’re choosing to feed your family,” Gregg said.
She added, “At some point, people are going to break.”
She noted that fatigued officers have had traffic accidents coming to and from work. Sometimes they get off duty with so little time before the next shift that it does not make sense to go home only to turn around.
“We have employees who sleep in their cars,” she said.
And this is a job that requires officers to remain constantly alert and ready to make instant decisions with possible life or death consequences.
“They come through every single day,” Gregg said, to a job that is not without dangers.
“Every time you go to work, you don’t know if you are coming home,” she said.
And “augmenting” engineering and maintenance staff to serve as “frontline” corrections officers has no doubt contributed to the deteriorating physical condition of the facility, mirroring the deterioration in morale. The place is plagued by water leaks, mold, rodents and roaches.
Defense attorney Bruce Barket has been complaining for more than five years about the conditions various clients have suffered at the MCC. He says that anyone seeking legal redress generally has to first go through administrative procedures established by the Bureau of Prisons. That includes appeal provisions seemingly devised to extend the process to the point of absurdity.
“It’s kind of the old ‘you can't fight city hall,’” Barket said.
He says that lawyers who arrive to meet with clients are often delayed by a shortage of staff to admit them to the facility and to monitor the upstairs meeting area. Security procedures prohibit attorneys from bringing in watches or cellphones. There are wall clocks in the meeting area, but they lack the required AA batteries.
“None of them work,” Barket reported.
The MCC thereby has literally become the land that time—as well as reason—forgot. Barket’s present clients there include Nicholas Tartaglione, an ex-cop charged with a quadruple murder connected to a drug deal. Tartaglione was Epstein’s cellmate in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) when the accused sex offender first arrived.
That ended when the accused sex trafficker was found lying on the floor of their cell. Tartaglione claimed that he had stopped Epstein from taking his life, but the visible injuries were only some light bruises around the neck and some officials were dubious. The officials seemed to nonetheless err on the side if caution when they put Epstein on suicide watch. They then seemed to err on the side of erring when they took him off it and returned him to the SHU.
Epstein was given a new cellmate, but that person was moved and nobody replaced him. A cellmate likely would have kept Epstein from managing more than another attempt. But he was left alone in circumstances that made a mockery of a sheet that all residents of the SHU are supposed to receive:
“Your living conditions in the SHU will meet or exceed standards for healthy and humane treatment… Your living quarters will be well-ventilated, adequately lighted, appropriately heated, and maintained in a sanitary condition.”
Early Saturday morning, two officers were on duty in the SHU. One is said to have worked four overtime shifts in a week. The other is said to have been “augmented” from other duties.
By some reports, the officers failed to check Epstein every 30 minutes, as required by the protocol set upon his release from suicide watch on July 29.
An officer did check around 6:30 am. Epstein was reported to have hung himself. Efforts to revive him—first at the MCC’s medical unit, then by FDNY paramedics who arrive with an ambulance and then at a nearby hospital—all failed.
When Bulger was murdered in a West Virginia prison, many people thought he had it coming. Epstein’s suicide left some of his victims feeling he had again beat the system. They had been cheated out of the chance to see him finally brought to justice.
And now Barr is calling every three hours for answers.