Was Jeffrey Epstein more important than Ricardo Martinez?

I’ve worked in the federal prison world – as a correctional worker, manager, adjunct professor, consultant and an advocate – for decades.

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide has left me scratching my head while reinforcing my belief the federal prison system, social media and the political environment are beyond reform.

When I received my first text alert over the weekend that Epstein had committed suicide while on suicide watch at MCC New York, I had no doubt it was an erroneous headline, having participated in numerous suicide watches while employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

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As the day and headlines evolved, I was inundated with media inquiries while reading stories that regurgitated misinformation about everything from a former MCC inmate who reported it was impossible to commit suicide in the special housing unit (SHU) to a retired warden who threw the agency under the bus by questioning the judgment of the MCC warden without knowing the specific facts surrounding the incident.

I wasn’t surprised that Epstein had committed suicide; nor did I think ineptness on the part of prison officials was to blame. My initial thought was that suicide made perfect sense from a practical correctional policy perspective.

People are rarely placed on suicide watch for more than several days to a week, as the prolonged potential for self-harm ordinarily results in the prisoner being transferred to a federal medical center. The first attempt had happened many weeks earlier, so it was extremely unlikely that this occurred during a suicide watch.

To compound things, pre-trial (un-convicted) prisoners, especially high-profile sex offenders, have the right to be separated from the inmate population and housed in the SHU for protective custody. Epstein was clinically evaluated, removed from suicide watch and returned to the SHU, where he effectuated his previously failed plan in an opportune environment of isolation, minimal supervision and even the BOP’s own policy and procedures.    

The Epstein case provided unique challenges that placed the agency between a correctional rock and a hard place. While people with a prior suicide attempt ordinarily return to the general prison population, this was not an option for Epstein. While much media speculation surrounds the unit officer’s 30-minute cell checks, medical literature indicates that death occurs within 10 minutes of asphyxiation.  While I won’t get into all the ways an inmate can kill himself in an SHU environment, I can tell you from experience it is often done in a prone position.  

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Some commentators have questioned why Epstein was in a single cell. It’s because in two-man cells, inmates are left alone when the other inmate has a legal or social visit or is taken from the cell to the shower. I’m sure the same people questioning a single-cell arrangement would criticize a double-cell living arrangement had Epstein been murdered by his cellmate because he was a sex offender.

Attorney General Bob Barr and Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz are launching into investigation mode. But the outrage and attention to the factors leading to death, while certainly needed, is misplaced.

There is no need for a Justice Department or Inspector General investigation. I can tell you with certainty that the BOP’s investigative process for critical incidents, called an “after action review,” is thorough and independent.  

I am ordinarily critical of BOP operations. But while some may insist that the agency cannot police itself, the investigative team will leave no stone unturned, especially for officer policy violations like the failure to conduct 30-minute checks.

When incidents like prison suicides and homicides occur, the BOP does eat their own in this after-action process. But it’s ordinarily not the upper management echelon that takes the brunt of the punishment.

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The media and pundits missed the real story here. If this story had involved someone other than a billionaire financier with famous friends, would the media frenzy still have occurred?

Where was the outrage two weeks ago when 76-year-old Ricardo Martinez was murdered within the USP Canaan special housing unit?  Where is Barr’s outrage about the Canaan SHU murder or the fact that USP correction officer staffing levels are at or below where they were when BOP Officer Eric Williams was murdered after being stabbed more than 200 times? 

This weekend I am searching for my own answers to the problems confronting our correctional system. But they are not going to come from some academic, politician, algorithm, think tank or blue-ribbon commission.

Our federal correction system is broken, but it’s not because of Epstein’s suicide. No one can stop a person from taking his life in a federal prison if that is his end game.

Epstein’s death has brought attention to the need for a more transparent and accountable prison system. The lack of understanding about the very basics of the system inhibit correctional treatment and rehabilitation. Rather than focus on any officer protocol breaches that led to the suicide, the Justice Department should focus on the agency’s leadership, transparency and accountability.

We will know our prisons are reformed when they are staffed appropriately and given financial resources for prisoner treatment, education and training that are on par with incapacitation.          

Jack Donson is president and founder of My Federal Prison Consultant and a retired federal Bureau of Prisons employee.