Early Saturday morning, news broke that high-profile financier and alleged sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had died, apparently by suicide, in his cell at the federal jail in downtown Manhattan. The facility, called the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), holds about 800 people awaiting trial on federal charges. Within hours, the internet was awash in conspiracy theories about his death.
In 2018, I published an investigation into conditions at the MCC on the New York City-based outlet Gothamist, and this weekend, as that story began to circulate on Twitter, the conspiracy theorists also found their way onto my timeline. “Epstein was running a classic ‘Honey Trap’” for Western Intel,” one person tweeted at me. “If you have no understanding of the Deep State tactics, you believe what you see on TV. Keep believing baby. That’s what they are counting on.”
At this point, of course, none of us know for sure the exact circumstances in which Epstein died. But as someone who spent almost two years digging into conditions at MCC – including interviewing defense attorneys, human rights advocates and former residents – I can safely say that what happened to Epstein didn’t surprise me. The jail is governed by corruption, indifference and outright cruelty. Anyone who thinks there needed to be some grand conspiracy in place for him to successfully commit suicide is living in an alternate dreamworld, where individuals charged with federal crimes are kept clean and safe while they await their day in court. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here’s the first thing you should know about MCC: it’s a filthy, vermin-infested place. “We saw rats so big it seemed like they could only be in the sewer,” one former prisoner told me in describing his time there. “But they wasn't in the streets or the sewers,” he added. “They were more like roommates.”
The place is grossly overcrowded, and plumbing is always breaking down. In one 2015 lawsuit, a prisoner described how the people on his floor were forced to defecate in bags, which were then not removed from the unit. Some men instead opted to defecate in the shower.
Nor is it a secret that MCC is a violent place, and it seems like staff there have lied about prisoner deaths before. In September 2017, an attorney named Andrew Laufer filed a lawsuit alleging that after 35-year-old Roberto Grant was beaten to death at MCC in May 2015, the prison staff tried to cover it up by telling his Grant’s family he’d died of an overdose. I reviewed a copy of the autopsy performed on Grant, which stated the father-of-two had suffered “blunt force injuries of the head, neck, torso, and extremities” and had no detectable traces of drugs in his system. “There’s not an inch of that facility that is not surveilled,” Laufer told me. “No one cares.”
There’s also a total dearth of medical care, especially when it comes to treatment for mental illness. MCC and its sister facility, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, share a single psychiatrist and each have only a handful of psychologists on staff, according to court documents, yet this skeleton crew is expected to provide comprehensive treatment to the nearly 500 or so individuals suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses. From what I understand, when individuals are in psychiatric distress – like when they are on suicide watch – they are sometimes even evaluated through the slot in their cell door.
Given everything we know about MCC, the conspiracy theories about Epstein’s death aren’t just stupid – they’re dangerous. They let the Bureau of Prisons off the hook for not addressing conditions there years ago, along with the Southern District of New York, the office charged with prosecuting Epstein and others held at MCC. They give a free pass to Congress, who are responsible for overseeing the BOP and ensuring prisoners there are detained in humane conditions. And they give a free pass to the American press and public, too, who seemingly only pay attention to the brutality of MCC when the likes of Epstein and El Chapo end up there.
We might not know for sure what happened to Epstein. But the real conspiracy about MCC – if you can call it that – is that we ignore the brutality of the place, even though there is plenty of evidence, even though it is located in one of the busiest, most populated, most media-saturated locales on earth.
You don’t need to believe the Clintons colluded to kill Jeffrey Epstein to make sense of his death. You just need to acknowledge that all of us – the people in power, the voters, the reporters, the residents of New York City – should or could have known that prisoners there were suffering. Yet nothing changed.