Here are a few things I know firsthand about being in jail. First and foremost, you have virtually no control over your life and surroundings. You can't get so much as an aspirin without authorization. In most jails, you can't wear a belt, or shoelaces, or keep a razor in your cell. You have no privacy, no sense of dignity, and no rights. And in a well-run jail, high-profile prisoners have virtually no chance of killing themselves.
So the alleged suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, the 66-year-old financier with powerful American and foreign friends who was about to stand trial for allegedly sexually abusing dozens of girls, many of them underage, is particularly unfathomable—and outrageous. In a letter to the Justice Department, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska called it inexcusable that Epstein did not live to face his accusers. "Obviously, heads must roll," he wrote. Attorney General William Barr clearly agrees. Saying that he was "appalled" to have learned that Epstein was found dead at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, Barr instructed the department's inspector general to investigate precisely how Epstein died at MCC, a long-troubled, pretrial detention facility.
Epstein was placed on suicide watch on July 23 after being found semi-conscious in his cell with marks on his neck, in what prison officials described at the time as a failed suicide attempt. He was removed from suicide watch six days later, on July 29, and returned to a segregated area of the prison with extra security known as the special housing unit. Why Epstein was removed from suicide watch is a focus of the DOJ investigation.
While officials from the department's Bureau of Prisons, which supervises the MCC and other federal prisons, have said little about Epstein's death other than to claim that Epstein hanged himself, officials told me Sunday that the prison's psychological team had evaluated Epstein on a daily basis after his alleged initial suicide attempt and had found him to be no risk to himself or to others. Officials said that Epstein had met for many hours each day with his legal team, and that both he and his lawyers had repeatedly assured the prison that he did not want to kill himself and had asked MCC to remove him from the suicide watch. The prison has yet to comment on whether prison officials believe that the initial July 23 incident that landed Epstein on the suicide watch was, in fact, a genuine effort to end his life.
Finally, officials said, at least one member of Epstein's legal team was with him until 6:30 on the Friday evening before his death. None of his legal team—Reid Weingarten, Marty Weinberg, Michael Miller, or Marc Fernich—would comment about their client's emotional and mental state the night before his death and during the last six days of his incarceration.
Officials said that under the prison's rules and procedures, Epstein was supposed to be given a cell mate and monitored by prison guards every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day after being removed from suicide watch. Prison experts believe that having a cellmate helps deter suicide. Neither officials nor Epstein's legal team would comment on whether those procedures were followed, but at least one official familiar with the episode said that they were not. Epstein had a cellmate before his initial alleged suicide attempt, but cellmate Nicholas Tartaglione, a former police officer facing murder charges, was not returned to share a cell with him after Epstein was placed on watch and then removed from the list, one official said. The official said that Epstein was alone in his cell for some time before his death—again, in violation of the prison's rules and procedures.
If confirmed, such disclosures about what appear to be failures in Epstein's detention at MCC can only intensify questions and suspicions about his death. "This facility is known for being deeply troubled," one official said, though others cautioned that the DOJ's and the prison's own investigation were in its initial stages and that facts could change as the inquiry progressed.
My own relatively small brush with America's justice system was profoundly different from Epstein's. Unlike him, I was jailed voluntarily. Then a journalist with the New York Times, I chose to spend three months at Alexandria Detention Center (ADC) near Washington in 2005 rather than identify my sources to an overzealous prosecutor pursuing the leaking of classified information. Epstein, having escaped real incarceration for years since his first conviction in Florida in 2008 on state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor, had no choice but jail. After his initial conviction in Florida, however, he brokered a much-criticized deal that enabled him to avoid federal charges and spend only 13 months behind bars. Even then, he was permitted to leave jail to work at his office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Epstein was charged with new federal crimes on July 6 after he returned from overseas and was arrested at Teterboro airport; Federal District Court Judge Richard Berman deemed him a flight risk given his vast wealth, many residences, and high-powered social connections—among them, President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew of Britain, and Leslie H. Wexner, the retail billionaire—and denied him bail. Epstein was sent to await trial at MCC.
Unlike ADC, a Virginia-state-run jail, MCC is one of two federal pretrial facilities in New York City, this one in downtown Manhattan, two blocks from City Hall. Known as "Manhattan's Guantanamo" for holding prisoners charged with terrorist crimes, it has a poor reputation. In an article published by Gothamist last year, Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor who has written extensively about conditions at MCC, called the facility an American "gulag." She told Gothamist: "If I described these conditions—filthy, freezing, no natural light, isolation so extreme that you're punished for speaking through the walls, absurd rules like prisoners not getting to see the newspapers unless they're 30 days old, secrecy so deep that people are force-fed and lawyers can be punished for describing the conditions their clients are experiencing—you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was Iran or Russia."
While both ADC and MCC are high-security detention facilities that hold high-profile prisoners, my own experience as Inmate #45570083 has led me to conclude that Epstein—Inmate #76318-054—should have lived to face his accusers, and that in a well-run prison, he would have. The ongoing investigations by the FBI, DOJ inspector general, and the prison itself will explore whether MCC is among the nation's worst-run federal pretrial facilities, and/or whether Epstein may have had some desired (or unwanted) help in ending his life and escaping his day in court. I shun conspiracy theories—but based on the little that prison officials have said so far, and what I know of life in jail, Epstein's death is deeply troubling. No one should die of unnatural causes in jail. In a well-managed facility, no one would. However lurid the charges against him and perverse the nature of his alleged crimes, Epstein's death behind bars should trouble every American. The investigations must not rest until what happened is revealed.