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August 22, 2019

How Jeffrey Epstein managed to kill himself

August 13, 2019

Not the only one who died inside. (AP)

Jeffrey Epstein’s jailhouse death was not a unique occurrence. Nationwide, one out of every 2,000 detainees kill themselves. Being accused of a crime, unable to make bail and facing a probable conviction is hopeless and terrifying.

When arrested in 2003 for enough armed robberies to put me away forever, I considered dying. On my first night of a decade of incarceration, I hid a scarf under my overcoat and looped it around my throat. A cop appeared before I even ran out of breath. “I gotta see your hands while you’re sleeping,” he said, “I know it’s cold, but them’s the rules.” And they were; Epstein just ignored them.

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Many find Epstein’s Saturday death suspicious; ex-cons like me have the best reasons to. We know how hard it is for a regular prisoner to commit suicide. For a controversial defendant like Epstein, who has demonstrated the lengths he was willing to go to avoid consequences, it should have been harder.

After a probable self-harm attempt on July 23, Epstein spent a week on “suicide watch.” This intensive regimen makes it physically impossible to kill yourself. It’s also uncomfortable enough to discourage future actions that even hint at such intentions. Wards of the state are guaranteed shelter, sustenance and safety in custody. The families of prisoners who kill themselves can sue for wrongful death if negligence occurred, so precautions are stringent.

Typically, someone on suicide watch has their clothing replaced with a rigid rubberized smock, impossible to tear or form into a noose. They are moved to cells with 24-hour supervision and no privacy for bathroom use or even a blanket. Inmates hate these conditions. But it’s the only way to make sure no one “takes themselves off the count.”

Epstein waited until his watch was over; in the upstate prisons where I did my time, 72 hours was the longest you’d have to endure this. The Manhattan federal Metropolitan Correctional Center was careful enough to keep Epstein, shivering in a smock without a newspaper to read, for twice as long. He was discovered hanged early Saturday morning. After the last incident, his cellmate, a muscled crooked cop and accused quadruple murderer, was transferred out. Epstein died alone in a locked cell. The hallway cameras proving this seem to have malfunctioned.

At night, guards cannot wake everyone up every half-hour to make sure they’re alive. Instead, guards check for breathing. Staff makes rounds every half-hour, peeking in to make sure everything’s alright. A friend in a maximum security prison simply waited for rounds to pass to hang himself with a sheet from the top of his door immediately after. No great height is required if you tuck your knees in and drop off the steel sink. Soaping the noose ensures that it will swiftly and silently break your neck rather than strangling you slowly.

When suicides happen, the authorities are rigorous in determining their negligence wasn’t the cause. The guards document rounds; as long as standard procedure was followed, they aren’t responsible. Epstein was likely observed to be breathing several times that night and succeeded in dying because he made sure of it; he abused the unfillable holes in regular procedure.

Suicide is such a threat to a guard’s career that they err on the side of caution. In the same prison where my friend died, another friend jokingly asked how I’d hang myself. Answering his joke, I said that the bowl would hold my weight best. We didn’t notice a guard listening. An hour later, I was escorted to the psychiatrist, who concluded that we were joking and saved me from the horrors of suicide watch.

The officers on whose watch Epstein died will be lucky to save their jobs with Attorney General Bill Barr ordering an investigation. In hindsight, MCC should have taken extra precautions considering the prior incident. Nevertheless, considering the lockup’s diligence and one prisoner’s determination to die, the party most likely responsible for taking Epstein off the count is Jeffrey Epstein.

Genis is a writer and ex-con whose memoir of incarceration will be published soon.

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