Jurisprudence

A Horrifying Death in a Horrifying Jail

The scandal of Jeffrey Epstein and the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

A New York City Medical Examiner car parked outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
The Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City on Saturday.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey Epstein’s death by apparent suicide at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Saturday morning has led both the FBI and the Department of Justice’s inspector general to launch investigations. Questions have been raised about why Epstein was apparently removed from suicide watch just weeks after he’d been found semiconscious with marks on his neck. While it’s worth figuring out why and how that decision was made, the truth is we already have a very good idea why Epstein is dead.

We know that MCC, the federal prison in Manhattan that also recently housed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was deemed “worse than Guantanamo” by someone who spent time in both facilities. We know that cells are infested with bugs and rats so big they’re “more like roommates” and that the temperature swings from unbearable heat to frigid cold. We know that inmates have not received adequate medical care, that a corrections officer was found guilty of raping an inmate, and that officials allegedly tried to cover up the fatal beating of another prisoner.

We know that solitary confinement, where Epstein was being held, causes severe mental degradation. Report after report has cautioned against isolating prisoners with known mental disorders, and evidence shows that solitary confinement can trigger acute psychosis in people with no history of psychiatric problems. We know the suicide rate in correctional facilities is far higher than the rate in the general public. And we know that jails and prisons are ill-equipped to address mental health issues even as they become our primary warehouses for mentally ill people. More than 2,000 prisoners at MCC and the federal jail in Brooklyn share a single full-time psychiatrist and just a handful of psychologists.

Solitary confinement at MCC, as described by those who have survived it, is especially hellish. In the Special Housing Unit where Epstein was held, the fluorescent lights are kept on 23 or 24 hours a day, prisoners are prohibited from calling out to each other, and the cell windows are frosted to prevent any glimpse of the outside world.

“The segregated units are horrifying and inhumane,” David Patton, the executive director of Federal Defenders of New York, told the New York Times in 2017. “If you wanted to intentionally design a place to drive people mad, you’d be hard pressed to do better.”

Facilities, like MCC, that are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons tend to be among the nation’s most corrupt and violent institutions. As others have noted, Epstein is not the first high-profile federal prisoner to die in the past year. Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was beaten to death in a federal prison in October.

And yet the press, the public, and top government officials have largely ignored all these atrocities. Judges don’t take these conditions into account when sending defendants to federal facilities as they await trial. Oblivious taxpayers fund the requisite civil rights settlements whenever someone sues over a particularly clear violation. Nobody bothers to address the systemic problems that make these issues arise again and again and again.

So there will be investigations in the aftermath of Epstein’s death, likely followed by a lengthy legal battle to release footage and documents to help determine exactly what transpired. But no matter what we learn, we know the BOP failed Epstein and his victims, as they’ve failed countless others. The evidence of those failures is clear if we choose to look for it. But we’re so accustomed to reports of death, violence, and corruption in jails and prisons that it barely registers as a footnote amidst the feverish public speculation about how Epstein died.

We don’t need an investigation to tell us jails and prisons are often lawless, violent hellholes. The question now is: Do we care? Maybe most Americans believe that someone, like Epstein, who’s accused of horrific sex crimes, deserves to die. Maybe most Americans believe that the other people incarcerated in MCC—terrorism suspects, white-collar criminals, kids indicted in federal gang sweeps—deserve whatever they get. Or maybe most Americans believe that what happens in MCC and other federal facilities doesn’t reflect the kind of society we want to be. Before we make that judgment call, we have to be willing to look inside our jails and prisons, and we have to keep on looking until we truly reckon with the barbarism we’re all too eager to disregard.