(Bloomberg) -- The federal jail in lower Manhattan will face bracing questions and sharp criticism over the death of highest-profile inmate, Jeffrey Epstein, who managed to apparently kill himself early Saturday despite recently having been seen as a suicide risk.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said the FBI was investigating the incident. Martin Feely, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that Epstein’s death “raises serious questions” and that the Department of Justice’s Inspector General is opening an investigation into the circumstances. The Manhattan U.S. attorney termed the days events “disturbing” and a hurdle for victims.
Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell Saturday morning in what authorities termed an apparent suicide. Jail staff tried to revive him and summoned emergency medical personnel to take him to a nearby hospital, but he was pronounced dead by hospital staff, according to a brief statement.
The death of Epstein, who evaded severe punishment for more than a decade thanks to lenient treatment by law enforcement, could mean that molestation victims who had finally been promised their day in court by federal prosecutors will not get one after all.
“Jeffrey Epstein’s victims have once again been cheated out of an opportunity for justice,” said Jack Scarola, a West Palm Beach, Florida, lawyer who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “I’m sure that none of them regret his death. All of them regret the loss of information that died with him.”
A financier with hundreds of millions in assets, private planes and homes around the world, Epstein entered a controversial non-prosecution agreement more than a decade ago with U.S. prosecutors, which barred federal charges in Florida against him and conspirators.
Instead, he admitted to two state prostitution charges and served 13 months in county jail in Florida. A federal judge ruled in February that the Justice Department broke the law by making that deal without consulting the accusers. U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who was the lead federal prosecutor in Florida, resigned in July because of renewed public fury over the case.
Federal authorities in New York arrested Epstein in July and charged him with sex trafficking after his private plane returned to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey from Paris.
His death is another black eye for the grim Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, which holds nearly 800 inmates awaiting trial in federal court or serving short-term sentences. It’s been plagued in recent years by charges of corruption among guards accepting bribes to smuggle in drugs, alcohol and mobile phones, as well as rodent infestations and drug abuse and rape among inmates.
More precise details of how Epstein, 66, was able to kill himself were still emerging Saturday morning. Officials said he was found hanging in his cell, according to media reports. On July 23 prison guards found Epstein unconscious in his cell with marks around his neck, though it was unclear at the time the injuries were self-inflicted or he’d been attacked by another inmate. At some point he was briefly placed on, then taken off, a suicide watch.
In announcing Epstein’s charges last month, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan Berman urged additional victims to come forward. He reiterated that on Saturday, saying in a statement that, “Our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment -- which included a conspiracy count -- remains ongoing.”
“Today’s events are disturbing, and we are deeply aware of their potential to present yet another hurdle to giving Epstein’s many victims their day in court,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman.
“Certainly for the Bureau of Prisons, it is not a great reflection on what is usually seen as their goal of keeping all defendants safe even from themselves,” said Randall Jackson, a former federal prosecutor who’s not involved in the case. “There was already some kind of issue with Epstein so this will probably be the focus of an internal inquiry at the Department of Justice.”
Protocols for suicide watches vary, but generally require that guards check on inmates at least every 15 minutes. In some cases, guards are required to keep eyes on an inmate at all times through a window into the cell, logging multiple entries per hour about the inmate’s behavior and activities.
Typically, inmates on suicide watch are in a segregated unit with nothing in their cells. They are stripped down and provided a blanket or garment made of special material that can’t be used to form a noose. They eat with plastic utensils, or none at all. But suicide protocols can suffer when staffing or resources are limited. At times, jails may not have enough guards to dedicate to monitoring a single inmate at all times.
“It technically is impossible to kill yourself on suicide watch. It’s 24/7 observation by staff,” said Jack Donson, a former career federal prison employee who now works as a prison consultant.
Still, inmates aren’t kept on suicide watch indefinitely. Being on suicide watch entails harsh conditions, and there’s pressure in the system to remove the restrictions once prisoners have demonstrated stability, experts said. But sometimes, inmates intent on harming themselves can learn to say the right things to convince authorities to lift the monitoring.
“A lot of people have some explaining to do as to how such a high-profile inmate with many risk factors was able to commit suicide,” said Lindsey Hayes, a national expert in jail suicide prevention with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. “People need to be held accountable for what happened and hopefully they will.”
There were 222 suicides in federal prisons from 2001 to 2014, according to the most recent statistics available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Suicide was third-largest cause of death during that period in those facilities, at 4% of all fatalities.
Given the allegations in Epstein’s case that he engaged in sex trafficking of underage girls to rich and powerful figures, his death quickly spurred conspiracy theories about possible efforts to silence him. Twitter was alive Saturday with talk of possible scenarios, with trending topics including #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount.
“Let’s think...who wanted to suppress all the juicy details of a sex trafficker?” one person posted. “Could it be that it was ‘assisted suicide’?” wrote another on the anti-Trump page. “THEY CANT KEEP GETTING AWAY WITH IT,” a third person wrote on the anti-Clinton feed.
‘Yet Another Hurdle’
Epstein, who was being held without bail, faced life in prison if he was convicted. He pleaded not guilty last month, and his lawyers have argued that prosecutors in Manhattan were barred from bringing the case because of the agreement in Florida. They were expected to file a dismissal motion.
Now, with Epstein’s death, the government will be required to dismiss the charges itself.
Marc Fernich, one of Epstein’s lawyers, said in an emailed statement that there’s “plenty of blame to go around” for the “unthinkable tragedy” of Epstein’s death -- among them, prosecutors, politicians, judges, jailers, plaintiffs lawyers and the media.
“I call for a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Epstein’s death. The public needs to know exactly what happened and why -- and how his custodians could have let it occur,” Fernich said.
(Updates with Berman comment in 11th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Patricia Hurtado, Erik Larson and Chris Dolmetsch.
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