Attorney General ousts head of federal prison system in aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein's death

Kevin Johnson

WASHINGTON — The acting director of the federal prison system has been removed in a leadership shakeup following the suicide death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Attorney General William Barr announced Monday.

Barr, who has been sharply critical of Bureau of Prisons operations since the financier was found dead in his cell at Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center just more than a week ago, said he was installing a former director, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, to serve another term as the chief of the nation's largest prison system.

Epstein, 66, was awaiting trial following last month's indictment on charges of sex trafficking and sex-trafficking conspiracy. Federal prosecutors alleged that he "sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes" in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, and at other locations from 2002-2005.

He was found "unresponsive in his cell" early earlier this month at the federal detention in Manhattan and transported to nearby New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Epstein's death is the subject of at least three federal investigations, involving the FBI, the Justice Department's inspector general and the Bureau of Prisons. Among the areas of focus, authorities have been examining whether guards assigned to Epstein's unit may have slept through checks on the prisoner's cell in the hours before he was found dead, a person familiar with the matter said.

The review of the guards' conduct also will include whether they appropriately accounted for their time on duty, said the person who is not authorized to comment publicly.

Hugh Hurwitz, who had been the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons at the time of Epstein's death, is moving to head the division that prepares prisoners for re-entry to their communities.

Barr attorney general said Sawyer's prior leadership at the bureau, running more than a decade before her departure in 2003, was distinguished by "innovation and efficiency."

Thomas Kane, a longtime prison official before his retirement more than year ago, also is returning to serve as deputy director, Barr said. In more than four decades at the bureau, Kane rose to the rank of deputy director and had served as acting director most recently in 2016 and 2017.

“The Bureau of Prisons is one of my top priorities," Barr said in a memo to prison staffers. "The appointment of a permanent director and deputy director is an essential step in moving the bureau forward."

New York City medical examiner personnel leave their vehicle and walk to the Manhattan Correctional Center where financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges, Saturday Aug. 10, 2019, in New York.

Prison union officials have long warned that officer fatigue, caused by staffing deficits and frequent overtime duties, compromised security at the Manhattan facility. Serene Gregg, local president of the prison workers' union, has said that there are more than 30 staffing vacancies at the facility and that prison officials have regularly deployed civilian staffers to work guard duty to plug unfilled officer positions.

Ten of 18 staffers who reported for duty Saturday on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, were working overtime, according to the Justice official, relating information provided by federal prison authorities. The official spoke on condition of anonymity. Guards discovered an unresponsive Epstein shortly after 6:30 a.m.

On the previous shift, Friday's 4 p.m.-to-midnight rotation, six of the 20 staffers were working overtime.

Epstein's death set off a wave of recriminations from his accusers, lawmakers and the attorney general who last week referred to the discovery of "serious irregularities" at the federal detention center.

Barr followed those remarks last week by taking his first administrative action: temporarily reassigning the warden at the New York detention center. At the same time, prison officials placed two staffers on administrative leave. One of those staffers, according to the person familiar with the investigation, had worked multiple overtime shifts before reporting to duty on Epstein's unit.

"We will get to the bottom of what happened, and there will be accountability," Barr said. “Let me assure you that this case will continue on against anyone who was complicit with Epstein."

Yet Epstein's sudden death cast an unflattering spotlight on a prison system plagued for years by dangerous staffing shortages, violence and widespread sexual harassment of female officers.

Earlier this year, Barr acknowledged that the agency was struggling to fill up to 5,000 vacancies, a shortfall worsened by recent budget cuts and a government shutdown.

Since last spring, following the abrupt departure of Director Mark Inch, the agency has been without permanent leadership. And even as Barr ordered a Justice Department investigation into Epstein’s death, federal authorities were continuing to review the October murder of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger at a federal facility in West Virginia.

"We've got a serious problem," Eric Young, national president of the federal prison workers union, said in an interview with USA TODAY last week.

Union officials and federal lawmakers were sounding the alarm years before Epstein's death, highlighting operations in which both staffers and inmates have been placed in the cross-hairs mostly due to deep staffing shortages.

Attorney General William Barr.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeffrey Epstein: Federal prison chief ousted by Attorney General Barr