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Suicide or Murder? Jeffrey Epstein’s Death Still Drawing Attention to Bureau Inadequacies

by Anthony W. Accurso

Months after the August 2019 death of Jeffrey Epstein, rumors and theories are still circulating that cast doubt on the cause of death.

The 66-year-old billionaire became the center of the nation’s attention after he was arrested July 6, 2019, on new charges of sex trafficking of minors in New York and Florida over a decade ago. A month later, on August 10, 2019, he was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York City, where he was being kept in custody by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to await trial.

The MCC has long been a notorious hellhole, which critics have labeled a “gulag” and “Little Gitmo.” Hundreds of suspected “terrorists” were rounded up by the FBI in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, often on the flimsiest of evidence – i.e. being Muslim – and many were jailed without bail at the MCC. They were denied rights to make a phone call or speak with an attorney, and some were held in cells lit 24 hours a day and shackled when escorted. They were almost all released after being held for an average of three months. PLN has reported for decades on prisoners at the MCC being beaten, raped and otherwise abused by staff in squalid, brutal conditions.

Following media outrage that Epstein’s young victims would be denied justice – a 2015 affidavit filed by French modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel noted Epstein’s “strong appetite for sex with minors” -- New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson conducted an autopsy and ruled his death a suicide. Brunel, it should be noted, was also one of Epstein’s accomplices.

However, the fact that video tapes showing who had access to Epstein’s cell at the time of his death were “accidentally deleted” by the BOP did not inspire confidence in the suicide claims. Furthermore, Michael Baden, a renowned forensic pathologist, was hired by Epstein’s family to conduct an independent autopsy. He concluded that Epstein was murdered and said that injuries he suffered, such as a broken bone in his neck, were “extremely unusual in suicidal hangings and could occur much more commonly in homicidal strangulation.”

(After the famous Attica Prison uprising in 1971, State Correction Department officials blamed prisoners for the deaths of ten staff hostages, saying some had their throats slit. Baden and another pathologist determined this was false and that the hostages were killed by indiscriminate gunfire during an assault on the prison by state troopers ordered by then- Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Thirty prisoners were also killed during the assault, and Baden determined that many had been shot at close range by state troopers and guards.)

Last November, former Navy Seal and Warrior Dog Foundation founder Mike Ritland commented on Fox News that Epstein didn’t kill himself. Ritland told GQ that he was “trying to keep [the story] in the news so it doesn’t get forgotten about.” Ritland cited popular podcaster and social media personality Joe Rogan as his source.

Rogan has been posting and reposting “Epstein didn’t kill himself” memes as more high-profile people continue to be linked to Epstein. The list includes a host of billionaires, plus Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Kevin Spacey, and — as of October — Bill Gates. Add to this the allegation that Amy Robach, an ABC News anchor, claims that her story linking Prince Andrew to Epstein’s victims was suppressed, and you have the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. As recently as this February, though, the hashtags #EpsteinSuicideCoverUp and #EpsteinDidNotKillHimself trended upward again.

But the truth could potentially be much more mundane, though all the more tragic for its reality: Jeffrey Epstein might well have committed suicide, and been abetted by systemic failures that have plagued BOP for years. The circumstances which have come to light surrounding Epstein’s suicide — overworked staff, understaffed facilities, failure to follow policy, attempting to cover-up failures, and questionable decisions by psychologists and wardens — do not surprise anyone familiar with criminal justice issues. Coupled with a callous disregard and indifference to the lives and well-being of the prisoners in its captivity. But these are also the same facts that allow murders to happen in prisons and jails as well and for bureaucrats to avoid liability and accountability alike.

According to Serene Gregg, the local prison workers’ union president at MCC New York, “They [prison officials] have been playing a dangerous game for a long time. And it’s not just at MCC, it’s going on across the country.”

Several high-profile deaths had led lawmakers from West Virginia and Pennsylvania to write a letter in 2018 to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which was sent just two days before notorious mobster Whitey Bulger was killed in a BOP facility in Hazelton, West Virginia.

Data released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 found suicide had become the leading cause of death in the nation’s jails and prisons, hitting a 15-year high. In a June 2019 story, USA Today also noted that suicide rates of incarcerated persons have been on the rise. Fifty out of every 100,000 incarcerated persons committed suicide in 2014, the latest year for which the government has released data. That rate is 3.5 times the suicide rate of the general population.

“In most prisons and jails I’ve seen — and there are exceptions — suicide prevention is a joke,” said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We have seen people able to attempt suicide while supposedly on constant suicide watch. We’ve seen people taken off suicide watch because staff thought they were OK, and then kill themselves that same day. We’ve seen officers who were supposed to be watching someone on suicide watch actually sleeping.”

Attorney General William Barr has taken a bit more action than Sessions, his predecessor. He removed Hugh Hurwitz, the acting director of the BOP, and temporarily assigned Lamine N’Diaye, the warden of MCC New York when Epstein died, to a desk job in Philadelphia. Barr also placed the two employees on watch over Epstein on administrative leave, pending possible criminal charges.

In January, the BOP restricted staff use of cellphones and access to the Internet, saying they were “unnecessary distractions” of the type that may have contributed to Epstein’s suicide. “When on the job, your full attention should be focused on the behavior of the inmates in your charge and the activity going on around you,” Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer wrote memorandum distributed across the BOP.

It’s amazing how much accountability suddenly happened when a celebrity, albeit a nefarious one, committed suicide.

Following the death of Whitey Bulger there was an immediate change in leadership at United States Penitentiary Hazelton. Justin Tarovisky, executive vice president of the prison workers’ union at Hazelton, said that conditions there have significantly improved after a surge in hiring followed the assignment of Warden Byron Antonelli.

“It’s a totally different environment,” said Tarovisky.

Imagine how much more quickly the BOP (and other prison and jail systems) would see such significant improvements if every suicide were treated with the same shock and outrage that followed in the wake of Epstein’s death. Whether any lasting change results at MCC as a result remains to be seen. 



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