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Justice Dept. reassigns warden of jail where Epstein died, puts two staffers on leave

A medical examiner’s vehicle is seen outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where Jeffrey Epstein was found dead.
A medical examiner’s vehicle is seen outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where Jeffrey Epstein was found dead. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
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The Justice Department on Tuesday reassigned the warden at the New York detention center where Jeffrey Epstein apparently hanged himself, and placed on leave two staffers monitoring his unit at the time — a shake-up ordered amid growing complaints about the facility made to hold some of the country’s most notorious suspects.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high-rise holding roughly 760 prisoners, has been the subject of intense scrutiny since Epstein’s death while in federal custody last weekend. Critics called the incident emblematic of a neglected, understaffed and dysfunctional federal prison system.

The move to transfer Lamine N’Diaye, who had only recently begun working as the MCC’s warden, came a day after Attorney General William P. Barr decried “serious irregularities” there and a “failure” to keep Epstein secure.

Attorney general rips ‘failure’ of detention center to secure Epstein

On Tuesday, Barr “directed the Bureau of Prisons to temporarily assign” N’Diaye to a regional office, pending the outcome of internal investigations into Epstein’s death, the Justice Department said in a statement. The Bureau of Prisons declined to make N’Diaye available for an interview, and efforts to reach him separately were not successful. The two staffers placed on administrative leave were not identified.

“Additional actions may be taken as the circumstances warrant,” the department’s statement said.

Barr appointed James Petrucci, who has been running a federal prison in nearby Otisville, N.Y., as the facility’s new acting warden.

The MCC is run by the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department and falls under Barr’s authority.

Epstein, a 66-year-old registered sex offender and multimillionaire, was found hanging in his cell around 6:30 a.m. Saturday, according to officials familiar with the matter. He was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges when he died. Results of his autopsy are pending.

Epstein was being held in a special housing unit of the MCC called Nine South and should have been checked on by the staff every 30 minutes. But correctional officers had not done so for “several” hours before he was found by staff as they delivered breakfast to inmates, a person familiar with the matter said on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Corrections officers had not checked on Epstein for hours before his death

Serene Gregg, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3148, which represents the staffers, said in a text message, “I can’t confirm if in fact anyone has been placed on leave but this is not atypical when an investigation is initiated. It’s likely being done to preserve the integrity of the investigation.”

The FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general have been investigating Epstein’s death, focusing on apparent breakdowns of policy at the jail in the hours before staffers discovered him unresponsive.

On Monday, Barr said he “was appalled … and, frankly, angry” to learn of the detention center’s “failure to adequately secure” Epstein. He did not specify what irregularities had been found in the aftermath of Epstein’s death but vowed accountability.

A Justice Department official said the Bureau of Prisons’s suicide reconstruction team, which includes psychologists, on Tuesday began attempting to model the event, analyzing how and why Epstein was able to kill himself. The department planned to send an “after action” team on Wednesday, which would perform a broader assessment.

To those who have worked in or around the MCC, Epstein’s death is viewed as a symptom of long-term problems there and, more broadly, within the Bureau of Prisons.

Robert Hood, a former chief of internal affairs for the bureau, said the MCC has had longtime problems with overcrowding and understaffing. But in recent years, he said, the bureau has been afflicted by a lack of leadership, with a significant number of senior positions filled by temporary appointments.

“A third of the leadership isn’t really home, and that means people are looking for leadership and accountability, and there’s a morale issue,” Hood said. “The system is in crisis mode.”

Bruce Barket, a lawyer who represents a former cellmate of Epstein’s, said an overhaul of the MCC is years overdue.

“There are individual guards who work hard and do a good job, but the culture there is a bad combination of lazy and cruel,” said Barket, who described the concrete jail as infested with insects and rodents, chronically understaffed and comically inefficient.

“There are clocks in the attorney visiting rooms that require an AA battery,” Barket said. “The reason the clocks don’t work is because nobody bothers to put the batteries in.”

Sometimes, incompetence in the building reaches alarming proportions, observers said. In May 2017, for instance, a bank robber named David Evangelista was accidentally released from the MCC, even after he told staff he still had years left on his sentence, according to people familiar with the matter.

During roughly six hours of freedom, Evangelista called his lawyer seeking advice, and the lawyer, David Wikstrom, told him to get back to the jail, these people said. Evangelista returned, and was ultimately transferred to a different federal detention center. Wikstrom declined to comment on the incident, which was first reported by Gangland News.

The MCC has had other recurring security gaps. In June, prosecutors accused former CIA employee Joshua Adam Shulte of smuggling cellphones into the jail so that he could wage an “information war” against the government as he continues to fight charges that he illegally transmitted national defense secrets.

Still, the MCC is considered one of the safest and most secure lockup in the federal system. When Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin better known as “El Chapo,” was brought to New York, he was jailed there because it was considered more secure than the federal lockup close to the Brooklyn courthouse where he was ultimately convicted.

The MCC’s problems with understaffing and a lack of resources are not unique to the facility, nor is Epstein’s the first death in federal custody to be blamed on such deficiencies.

Last year, Boston’s most infamous gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, was beaten to death by inmates in a federal prison in West Virginia. While at least two people were immediately identified as suspects, no one has been charged in the killing.

Bulger’s lawyer, Hank Brennan, said the Epstein and Bulger cases “appear unique because we usually only hear about the high-profile cases. This isn’t unique; it’s an epidemic. It’s using indifference as a tool against people, and it’s beyond negligent by the Bureau of Prisons and whoever is controlling them.”

E.O. Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, said Tuesday that the MCC faced significant staffing shortages due in part to a hiring freeze that had been implemented by the Trump administration. Under Trump, the Bureau of Prisons has experienced the second-most dramatic drop in the number of permanent employees of any department in the federal government, behind the IRS. The prison system saw a net loss of nearly 4,300 employees, or 11 percent of its payroll, in the first 20 months of the Trump administration, the most recent time period in which numbers are publicly available.

Because the facility is in downtown Manhattan, where the cost of living is high, it is seen as an unattractive post for prospective officers, and vacancies are hard to fill, Young said.

Young said he and other union officials recently convinced management to implement two incentive programs offering bonuses for those who transferred to the MCC or put off retirement. But the facility remains short-staffed, leading officers to work massive amounts of overtime and management having to assign people normally in other roles to officer duty, Young said.

Those factors were both at play the night of Epstein’s death, a local union official told The Washington Post over the weekend. The two officers assigned to watch Epstein’s unit were both on overtime — one forced, the other for the fourth or fifth time that week, union officials said. One did not normally work as a corrections officer, though a person familiar with the matter said the person had worked in that role for about seven years before taking a higher-paying job about five years ago.

Young praised the attorney general for acknowledging staffing shortages at the Bureau of Prisons and for lifting the hiring freeze in recent months, but he said it was “irresponsible” for Barr to blame prison officials before the investigation was complete.

Federal records show N’Diaye, the warden who was reassigned Tuesday, was at least the fifth person to lead the MCC in five years, and his work history — which includes time as the MCC’s head of correctional services and, later, as regional spokesman for the federal prison system — appeared to contrast with that of others who have held the high-pressure job.

Until five years ago, the path to the job of warden there at the MCC was more structured, with candidates having to first prove themselves as associate wardens at two or more other federal prisons, said Catherine Linaweaver, who retired as warden of the MCC in 2014. Linaweaver said the demands there were known to be unique and difficult for wardens, as one of the few pretrial facilities in the federal prison system.

“You have hundreds of inmates, each in some phase of presenting their defense, coming and going from the facility,” she said. “If one claimed he was being mistreated, it was not uncommon to have a judge call me up and ask what’s going on.”

In his first months in New York, N’Diaye had already been called to account by a group of attorneys representing federal suspects. The nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York demanded a meeting in May with the new warden to raise concerns about inmate treatment, particularly what they felt was a lack of adequate mental health care.

Linaweaver, who began her career in corrections as a teacher, said that as the MCC’s warden she never approved non-officers rotating into the special housing unit where Epstein was held, in part because it was protocol to cuff detainees when transferring them.

“It’s like anything. If you’re not doing it every day, you get rusty. You want guards practiced in the tactile side of corrections,” she said. “There are certain posts you do not pull your guards, and your special housing unit is one. You can’t take shortcuts with those people, or bad things happen.”

Julie Tate and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.