Deadly déjà vu: Epstein's prison death was decades in the making

A quarter-century ago, a federal inmate’s death inside an Oklahoma City detention center shocked a nation’s conscience and raised alarm bells about the federal prison bureaucracy then managed by President Bill Clinton.

Kenneth Michael Trentadue’s badly bruised body was found hanging in a cell in the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center in summer 1995, raising his family’s concern that he might have been murdered.

Multiple investigations concluded Trentadue committed suicide but highlighted jaw-dropping failures inside the Department of Justice (DOJ) and its Bureau of Prisons (BOP). 

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A DOJ inspector general probe concluded four years after Trentadue’s death that poorly trained prison officials’ response was “significantly flawed” and included “delaying their entry into Trentadue’s cell, attempting to videotape the scene rather than immediately providing medical attention to Trentadue, failing to assess Trentadue’s condition properly, failing to inform the FBI expeditiously and fully about the circumstances of his death, and rushing to clean the cell the day of his death.” 

Twenty-four years later and 2,000 miles away, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide at the Manhattan correctional facility exhibits some of the same shortcomings, including the reported failure to monitor for hours a high-profile prisoner who may have tried to commit suicide just weeks earlier. 

A review of dozens of internal investigations between 1995 and 2019 suggests these two tragedies are connected to the same root cause: an intransigent, slow-moving DOJ bureaucracy that has failed to heed repeated warnings.

This is not an indictment of the men and women who guard prisoners; they toil daily to keep Americans safe and to maintain law and order inside crowded, understaffed facilities.

Rather, it is the failure of leadership inside the permanent Justice Department bureaucracy — one that has served multiple presidents, Republican and Democrat — to fully address the resources and cultural deficiencies.

To understand just how cavalier that bureaucracy has been, consider this: Congress in 2013 passed a law requiring DOJ to report all deaths that occur in federal and state custody to better inform prevention efforts. To date, those statistics have not been assembled into a public report, as the law requires, and DOJ hasn’t even begun to collect the state prisoner death data, according to the IG.

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“The Department does not expect to begin its collection of this data until the beginning of FY 2020. This is largely due to the Department having considered, and abandoned, three different data collection proposals since 2016,” a recent IG report found. And when the Bureau of Prisons began sending its data to DOJ, it excluded essential information: the time of death of each deceased prisoner.

Six years, and DOJ can’t even collect data on something as important as Americans dying in custody?

But this mammoth bureaucracy suffers from far more than record-keeping and reporting problems, starting with its response to critical warnings about safety.

Take, for example, the 2016 IG report that found dangerous contraband — weapons, drugs, cell phones — continues to flow into prisons and that prison management lacked a comprehensive tracking system.

That review found the Bureau of Prisons and the union representing guards took a whopping 10 years to devise a plan to search for contraband smuggling — and then the plan fell far short of what was needed. 

The IG found BOP does not effectively collect data on contraband to detect trends that could help combat safety risks, and has failed to correct “blind spots” in camera-monitoring systems, which places guards at risk.

Prison workers will continue to “be at risk until the BOP develops and implements a comprehensive and effective staff search policy,” the report warned, highlighting deficiencies that had persisted since similar warnings in 2003.

Efforts to release prisoners to ease overcrowding have raised additional security concerns. A 2016 report on the release of 125,000 federal prisoners, many to residential centers known as RPPs, gave the Bureau of Prisons failing marks.

“We identified several weaknesses in the BOP’s implementation of its RPP that hinder the BOP’s efforts to successfully transition inmates back into the community. These weaknesses include the BOP’s inability to ensure that RPPs across its institutions meet inmate needs; the low level of RPP completion; the BOP’s lack of coordination with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, to provide access to services that incarcerated inmates need upon release; and the BOP’s inability to determine the RPP’s effect on recidivism,” the IG warned. 

A 2018 report cited the same types of management failures when it comes to the protection of female federal prisoners. The BOP “has not been strategic” in managing its female population and “could not ensure that its institutions adhered to policies pertaining to female inmates,” the report warned.

That report also warned of staffing shortages, another common threat to federal prison safety flagged with little resolution. 

DOJ acknowledged this year it is having difficulty filling some 5,000 job vacancies in prisons, an alarming gap in a system also struggling with tightened budgets.

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Days before mobster Whitey Bulger was murdered last year in a West Virginia prison, five members of Congress sent a letter raising concerns about staffing shortages and the potential impact on safety, including at the facility where Bulger was killed.

Similarly, unions representing guards have raised concerns about a practice known as “augmentation,” in which prison managers utilize untrained civilians such as teachers, nurses and lay counselors to fill schedule gaps. Officials at the Manhattan facility where Epstein died say both augmentation and heavy overtime were being used to compensate for staff shortages.

Lack of action on such warnings by DOJ policymakers is the ultimate evidence of a failed bureaucracy that puts the security of guards and inmates at risk, as well as that of the community outside prison walls.

This raises the question: How many more inmates must die before real reform begins?

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.