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Systemic failure: How could the federal jail system let Jeffrey Epstein slip through the cracks?

2019-08-13

How secure is the Metropolitan Correctional Center? (Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)

Attorney General Bill Barr said “serious irregularities” at Manhattan’s federal lockup may be what allowed millionaire accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein to commit suicide in jail this weekend. You think so? Curious how a very prominent prisoner, who could have implicated or embarrassed lots of others and who already tried to off himself, found a way out.

But Barr has questions to answer too, because inadequate staffing and inmate suicides are far from irregularities in federal facilities. Trump administration policies, including a 2017 federal hiring freeze that left the Bureau of Prisons with too few guards for too many inmates, have exacerbated a dangerous shortage of guards that prison employees have been warning about for years.

On the night of Epstein’s suicide, he had two guards, both on overtime. One had been ordered to work the extra hours. The other was on his fourth or fifth day of OT shifts. One guard apparently wasn’t even a regular corrections officer, just a prison employee filling in due to staffing shortages.

It’d be reassuring if New Yorkers could assume a basic level of competence among the people guarding the MCC, whose alumni include terrorists, bombers and gangsters like El Chapo and John Gotti. Who ordered Epstein off suicide watch, just weeks after he’d tried to kill himself, and why?

There’s nothing irregular about inmate suicide either. Hundreds kill themselves each year in local, state and federal prisons. Epstein was detestable, but the system had a duty to keep him alive so victims can see justice done.