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The Jeffrey Epstein blame game continues

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As Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer was testifying to Congress last week, reports began to circulate about the indictments of two correctional officers regarding the falsification of records in the Jeffrey Epstein suicide. Earlier this month, Hawk Sawyer had warned staff in a memorandum that falsifying documents constituted “very serious misconduct” that could expose staff to criminal prosecution. This week Attorney General William Barr announced the “perfect storm” of circumstances surrounding the suicide leading to the indictment.

Is this blame game ensnaring the correctional workers the result of out-of-touch bureaucrats ignoring the root causes of the bureau’s dysfunction? Or are they possibly distancing the bureau from the inevitable financial liability to come?

The officers reportedly napped and shopped online the night Epstein hanged himself in a Manhattan jail cell. They were supposed to check in on Epstein and other inmates every 30 minutes, but didn’t do so for eight hours, then falsified records to show that they had.

The officers’ inattention to duty is unacceptable and creates dangerous conditions that threaten the institutional security and welfare of staff and inmates.

Newly-hired officers are made aware of the responsibilities involved with being in a law enforcement capacity. But there is an internal disciplinary policy in the Standards of Employee Conduct with a range of penalties for such behavior. The agency is well within its rights to hand down the most severe punishment within that policy to the two officers involved, including termination.

But anyone who has ever worked in a prison realizes that even most perfect, regular thirty-minute checks cannot stop someone from committing suicide. I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time someone fudged a 30-minute check or nodded off on the midnight shift. Epstein was a man with a mission and needed no more than 10 minutes to execute the perfect plan subsequent to his test run.

These officers are not responsible for Epstein’s death.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine going to work one night. Five minutes before your shift ends at midnight, the phone rings and you’re told that you are staying for another eight-hour shift. You have no say in the matter.

It is not difficult to understand why staff can become indifferent or inattentive in this stressful, chaotic, understaffed high-security environment.

There’s a lot of blame to go around, but it’s misdirected at the lowest rung of the totem pole. While there is definitely a clear case for inattention to duty, a criminal prosecution only gives cover for management. It does not address the fundamental leadership void and issues within the BOP agency culture. 

Criminal prosecution of the officers should not obscure the decades-long problems of extreme understaffing, overcrowding and, most importantly, a “do as I say not as I do” leadership mentality, void of accountability and transparency at the highest levels of America’s prison system.

Look no further than the September 24 press release from the inspector general (IG) that outlines the misconduct of a high-ranking BOP official whom the IG chose not to refer for prosecution. Were bonuses paid out to that person as they were to other high BOP officials who have recently come under scrutiny for their management practices?

Aside from investigative disclosures in the public domain, let us not forget about the untold indiscretions one encounters when they are part of this culture. Administrators who find themselves in trouble and are quickly promoted, moved to another location or retire gracefully for that six-figure landing spot with a private prison.

So while there is definitely a clear case for inattention to duty and severe punishment for the staff involved in the Epstein suicide, it does not absolve management from taking responsibility for this agency culture. Federal prison reform can only be accomplished with a fundamental change in leadership.

Jack Donson is a retiree from the Federal Bureau of Prisons who co-founded Prisonology. He has over three decades experience in federal prison issues and is a reformer, advocate and consultant who testifies around the country and provides training to attorneys and justice professionals.         

Tags BOP Corrections Federal Bureau of Prisons Jeffrey Epstein Jeffrey Epstein Kathleen Hawk Sawyer Penology Prison reform William Barr

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