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. 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 friends who was about to stand trial for allegedly sexually abusing dozens of girls, many of them underage, is particularly unfathomable — and outrageous.
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.
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.
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.
Under the prison’s rules and procedures, Epstein was supposed to be given a cellmate 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 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 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 near Washington in 2005 rather than identity my sources to an overzealous prosecutor pursuing the leaking of classified information.
Epstein had no choice but jail. Unlike ADC, a Virginia-state-run jail, MCC is one of two federal pretrial facilities in New York City. Known as “Manhattan’s Guantanamo” for holding prisoners charged with terrorist crimes, it has a poor reputation.
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.
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. The investigations must not rest until what happened is revealed.