The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stands in lower Manhattan on November 19, 2019. This is the prison where Jeffrey Epstein was held.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stands in lower Manhattan on November 19, 2019. This is the prison where Jeffrey Epstein was held. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

‘Serious failures’ handling Jeffrey Epstein’s custody highlight the staffing crisis at federal prisons, watchdog says

The Justice Department IG blasted the Bureau of Prisons on many fronts in a new report and the bureau’s director concurred with all the recommendations. 

The Justice Department watchdog said in a new report the “numerous and serious failures” by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in its care and custody of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein ahead of his death by suicide in August 2019––which they confirmed–– once again highlighted the agency’s staffing crisis.

The Justice Department inspector general said in a report released on Tuesday that there were “numerous and serious failures” by the staff at Metropolitan Correctional Center New York where Epstein was imprisoned on sex trafficking charges. This included the violation of MCC New York and BOP policies and procedures; failure to carry out the psychology department’s directive that Epstein get a cellmate; and falsified records on inmate counts and rounds. Among the IG’s eight recommendations is that BOP continue to address its years-long staffing crisis, which had implications in this case.

“Without adequate staffing, the BOP cannot fulfill its mandate to ensure safe and secure correctional facilities,” the report said. “The OIG therefore recommends that the BOP continue to develop and implement plans to address staffing shortages at its institutions.”

For example, one of the two special housing unit staffers on duty on August 10, 2019, who found Epstein, worked 24 hours straight on August 9, 2019, which the IG said was a definite cause of the lack of sufficient accounting of inmate locations and wellbeing in the special housing unit. The individual who normally works as a material handler told the IG that no one did the 10 p.m. inmate count in the special housing unit because they were all tired. (He and another employee were charged criminally for falsifying BOP records, but their charges were dismissed after they entered into deferred prosecution agreements with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.) 

In another instance, as part of MCC New York’s security camera system upgrade, the regional BOP office sent technicians from other BOP locations to do temporary duty assignments at MCC New York. However, during these rotations there was not consistent work on the camera system because these staff were sometimes used to cover shortages at MCC New York’s custody positions, said the report. This facility, like many across BOP, has had significant camera security issues.

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters, who came into the role last summer, wrote in a response to the watchdog that she agrees with their recommendation on staffing. “While the issues raised in the OIG’s report were the result of employees failing to adhere to their duties, as opposed to a staffing shortage, the BOP welcomes the opportunity to continue the significant work that has already been undertaken and that is ongoing regarding staffing,” she said. 

Peters also agreed with the other recommendations from the IG, which were on how BOP can better care for inmates at risk for suicide, evaluate ways of accounting for inmates and enhance security camera systems. She also noted that the employee misconduct represents “a small percentage” of the entire bureau’s workforce. 

In a statement, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate majority whip and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report captured his concerns about the prisons bureau, including the staffing shortage, and he “will continue to conduct oversight of these issues at a BOP oversight hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee this fall.”

“This is not the first time the OIG has found significant job performance and management failures on the part of BOP personnel and widespread disregard of BOP policies that are designed to ensure that inmates are safe, secure, and in good health,” the IG said.

 “The combination of negligence, misconduct, and outright job performance failures documented in this report all contributed to an environment in which arguably one of the BOP’s most notorious inmates was provided with the opportunity to take his own life,” the watchdog continued. This resulted “in significant questions being asked about the circumstances of his death, how it could have been allowed to happen, and most importantly, depriving his numerous victims, many of whom were underage girls at the time of the alleged crimes, of their ability to seek justice through the criminal justice process.”