Suicides like that of alleged sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself while alone in a federal detention center this month, are predictable given conditions in the 122 federal detention centers, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Democrat.
“I have repeatedly tried to sound the alarm about these ongoing threats to the safety and security of our Federal prison system, only to be ignored by this Administration,” Durbin said in a prepared statement to The Washington Post. “It is unacceptable that it took the suicide of a notorious inmate to force the Trump Department of Justice to finally pay attention.”
U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials said they eliminated officer and staff positions in an effort to “rightsize” the bureau as changes to sentencing guidelines and other factors have led to a decline in the number of inmates.
Suicide rates increased from 8.1 per 100,000 federal inmates in fiscal year 2016 to 14.7 per 100,000 inmates in fiscal year 2018. Sixty-six inmates took their lives during that time.
Durbin, Democratic members of Congress and prison staff say federal prisons are understaffed. This emboldens prisoners, they say, causing them to break more rules and landing them in special housing and solitary confinement at increasing rates. The isolation for inmates causes mental health issues to spike and sometimes means no cellmates are present to stop or warn about the suicides.
Federal correctional officers are frustrated. Over the past two years, they have warned that understaffing is forcing officers to routinely work 16-hour shifts, and because that is not enough to staff the prisons, the bureau’s secretaries, janitors and electricians are now doing regular patrols.
Even with the lower staffing levels that were set in 2017, the bureau has 1,652 correctional officer vacancies.
“The administration has to look in the mirror,” said Joe Rojas, southeast regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals. “They caused this. They’ve destroyed the environment of the prisons. It isn’t the job it once was; people don’t want to work here anymore.”
Brandon Sample, a former prisoner who became a criminal defense lawyer, said understaffing is not the only problem. Even with the current staff, Sample said, the correctional officers frequently skip the walks they are supposed to make through the wards to check on prisoners. He advocates outfitting officers with body cameras to keep tabs on them.
“They are acting like this thing with Epstein, with guards not making their rounds, and falsifying documents to cover it up, that this is somehow unusual,” Sample said. “This happens all the time. They just don’t do it. They sit in their offices and don’t come out.”
Epstein was supposed to be checked every 30 minutes but was not. Also, at least eight staffers knew that strict instructions had been given not to leave Epstein alone in his cell, yet the order was apparently ignored in the 24 hours leading up to his death, The Post reported.
The Justice Department is investigating whether officers skipped patrols and said it is working to address problems with understaffing. The first step, they said, was changing leadership at the bureau, bringing back Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who previously served as bureau director from 1992 to 2003.
“Hiring additional correctional officers is a top priority for both the Attorney General and the Director and they are working closely together on this issue,” the department said in a statement.
Bureau of Prisons officials declined an interview request. The bureau said the “safety of staff, inmates and the public is the highest priority for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The BOP has an extensive Suicide Prevention Program that begins upon an inmates’ arrival at each BOP facility....”
Bureau officials did not address questions about the role that staffing might play in suicides, but they said there could be other contributing factors, such as access to pills or razors. They also did not say whether they believed an increase in the use of special housing, which typically confines inmates to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, may contribute to the problem.
Inmates in special housing have risen from a daily average of 10,533 inmates in 2016 to more than 11,800 inmates in August.
So far this fiscal year at least 23 inmates have killed themselves, according to federal data and suicides confirmed by The Post. Two of the inmates died after Epstein’s suicide. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said conditions have worsened — without any public outcry — because society has largely “written off” prisoners and does not equate prison safety with public safety.
“We wouldn’t tolerate secretaries going into control towers if there weren’t enough air traffic controllers,” he said. “Because it’s only prisoners, no one really cares, not until it happens to someone who is high profile. I assure you, what happened with Epstein is completely typical.”
Last Saturday, an inmate suicide took place at the Federal Detention Center in Miami that was similar to Epstein’s. Pedro Rene Gonzalez, 43, was a pretrial inmate in a special housing unit. He died after hanging himself with his bedsheet. Gonzalez was a felon facing a life sentence on weapons charges.
Rojas said the use of clerical and other non-custody staff is contributing to the rise in prisoners being sent to special housing.
Although these staff members receive officer training, they are not in the units every day, which means they have not developed relationships with inmates or learned what the normal patterns and behaviors are in a ward.
Eric Young, the immediate past president of the correctional officers’ union, said inmates often end up in special housing after they attempt to smuggle in drugs or weapons — something that is on the rise because of understaffing, he said.
Fewer officers means fewer patrols of the prison grounds, fewer “pat downs” of inmates in hallways and fewer cell searches. Knowing this, inmates have become more daring, he said.
Craig Haney, a social psychologist and professor at University of California at Santa Cruz, has studied the impact of prison isolation since the 1970s and said these conditions can exacerbate mental health problems or even create them.
The prison cells of inmates in solitary confinement and special housing are typically as big as a standard parking space or king-size bed, Haney said. When they are allowed outside for an hour or two a day, they are taken to a caged-in exercise area that is frequently about the same size with little or no exercise equipment, he said.
“You see them walking around almost like animals pacing in a zoo,” he said. “Many prisoners have told me, ‘I’m just going from one cell to another.’ ”
When inmates who live in this housing become suicidal, it is often difficult for prison staff to know.
Visits with prison psychologists often last no more than five minutes, Haney said, and therapy sessions often take place through a slot or crack in the door of the inmate’s cell where the conversations can be overheard by other inmates and correctional officers.
“Prisoners call these ‘drive-bys,’” he said. “If these people are suicidal, and not particularly eager to talk about their problems in their cells, then the problems go unaddressed.”
Taken by surprise
The suicide of prisoner Shawn Patrick Gant, 47, just one week after Epstein’s death, took both prison staff and his family by surprise, according to a family member.
His sister-in-law said Gant was open and largely upbeat in his frequent telephone conversations with family. Several family members were driving to visit him — for the first time in several years — when prison officials called about his death.
“We had absolutely no warning signs,” Tasha Gant said in an interview. “His counselor even said he was so happy to see his family. [Prison staff] were completely surprised. We are wondering what could have been going on.”
Unlike Epstein and Gonzalez, Gant — who was serving 30 years on arson and other charges — was in regular housing at the Federal Correctional Institute Coleman’s medium security facility in Sumterville, Fla.
Rojas, who works at Coleman, said video shows that the officer, whose name he would not disclose, had done his rounds and walked past Gant’s cell just minutes before he killed himself.
Rojas said that another inmate notified the officer — the only one on patrol in a unit with 128 inmates — after he found Gant hanging from his bunk with a bedsheet tied around his neck. The officer immediately responded and performed CPR, but it was too late, Rojas said.
“You know when you sign up that this might happen. We all worry that a suicide will happen on our shift one day. The officer was pretty shook,” he said. “It’s a horrible thing to watch someone die. He said when he got home, he also started thinking about the Epstein case. That’s on everyone’s mind. Will we be blamed even when we’ve done everything by the book?”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.