WASHINGTON–Two federal prison staffers were in custody Tuesday morning in New York and are expected to face charges related to their alleged failure to conduct regular checks on accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein before he hanged himself inside his Manhattan cell, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Epstein’s sudden death triggered a wave of recriminations from his many victims who had anticipated his trial on sex trafficking and related conspiracy charges.
It also prompted a leadership shakeup at the federal Bureau of Prisons. Attorney General William Barr ordered multiple investigations into the 66-year-old’s suicide, focusing on the operations at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan where Epstein was being held in federal custody.
Later Tuesday morning, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, whom Barr appointed to take over the Bureau of Prisons, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers expressed outrage over the security breakdown at the agency.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called Epstein’s death “a crisis of public trust” within the prison system.
“You are in this job because of this crisis,” Sasse said, repeatedly calling for the director to explain how the system failed to keep track of such a high-profile inmate. “That bastard now won’t be able to testify against his other co-conspirators.”
The senator said the expected charges against the two staffers are overdue.
“Heads needed to roll the day Jeffrey Epstein died,” Sasse said. “The Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice need to start giving the public some answers. These arrests are important, but they’re not the end of this: These guards aren’t the only ones who should stand trial — every one of Jeffrey Epstein’s co-conspirators should be spending the rest of their lives behind bars.”
Hawk Sawyer said she was unable to comment on the ongoing criminal investigation and a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But she acknowledged that prison authorities have discovered at least “a couple of other instances” in which officers have failed to conduct required checks on inmates and falsified records to show that they had.
“We don’t want those people” in the Bureau of Prisons, she said.
Although representatives of Epstein’s family have suggested the disgraced financier may have been murdered, Hawk Sawyer told lawmakers no evidence supports any determination other than suicide.
Prosecutors alleged that Epstein “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls” at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, and at other locations from at least 2002 to 2005.
Before New York’s chief medical examiner concluded that Epstein had hanged himself with a bed sheet, the disgraced financier’s sudden death was shadowed by conspiracy theories, some suggesting he had been murdered.
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For months, federal authorities have examined whether the staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit slept through mandatory checks on his cell in the hours before he was found dead, and whether the guards falsified logs accounting for their time on duty.
Prison union representatives have long warned that staff shortages and frequent overtime shifts have taken their toll on officers and compromised security at the Manhattan facility.
At the time of Epstein’s suicide, there were more than 30 staff vacancies at the facility, said Serene Gregg, local president of the prison workers’ union. Prison officials regularly assigned civilian staffers to work guard duty in order to plug unfilled officer positions, she said.
Ten of the 18 staffers who reported for duty on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, the one on which Epstein was found dead, were working overtime, according to federal prison records. On the previous shift, 4 p.m. to midnight, six of the 20 staffers were working overtime.
Barr reassigned the warden at the New York detention center, and prison officials placed two staffers on administrative leave. One of those staffers had worked multiple overtime shifts before reporting to duty on Epstein’s unit.
Just three weeks before he died, Epstein had been found in his jail cell, semiconscious with bruises on his neck. That prompted authorities to put him on suicide watch. He was removed from suicide monitoring just days later, which also has drawn investigative interest.
Experts on jail suicide have told USA TODAY that an inmate can be removed from suicide watch only if a licensed mental health professional concludes the inmate is no longer at risk for attempting suicide.
“When removing such a high-risk individual from suicide watch, it would be critical to do it in a step-down fashion so that there is still some extra monitoring,” said Lisa Boesky, a clinical psychologist and jail suicide expert from San Diego, California.
Boesky said Epstein was still “a high risk for suicide” because of the nature of his crimes, the humiliation he experienced after his arrest and his prior suicide attempt.