Saturday morning, the country awakened to news that Epstein, a wealthy financier under indictment on federal sex-trafficking charges, had apparently committed suicide in his cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York. The Epstein case has generated enormous interest around the country, prompting the resignation of the U.S. labor secretary over questions about the way he handled the case a decade ago as a U.S. attorney, as well as great interest in whether any of the many rich and famous people with whom Epstein associated knew about, or played any role in, his alleged crimes. Almost immediately after the news of his death broke, social media was flooded with journalists, commentators and others raising questions about how it could possibly have happened — and whether there was more to the story than meets the eye.
Wasn’t Epstein the most high-profile prisoner currently at the MCC — in fact, one of the most high-profile prisoners in the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons system? Hadn’t he apparently attempted suicide last month? Hadn’t he recently been denied bail and, at 66, been facing a future that might well have meant spending the rest of his life in prison? In light of these facts, all well-known to prison officials, shouldn’t he have been closely watched and denied access to anything that could be used to harm himself? Do the circumstances of his death require wholesale review of the way suicide risks are assessed and responses implemented in the MCC, or in the Bureau of Prisons more broadly?
Not surprisingly, too, Epstein’s death immediately prompted the spinning of various conspiracy theories, darkly speculating that what now appears to be a suicide might instead have been the result of foul play. According to some of these theories, Epstein’s suicide could have been orchestrated by a person or people who had something to lose from his remaining alive and the criminal charges and civil cases against him moving forward. With a shocking set of facts such as this one, that kind of speculation, frequently based on naked suspicion, is inevitable and, in today’s world, impossible to stop. The only antidote is a swift, thorough and objective search for the truth.
The Bureau of Prisons is one of the least well-known entities in the Justice Department. It houses approximately 150,000 federal inmates in more than 120 facilities across the country. Approximately 750 inmates are lodged at the MCC, which is generally not a facility where individuals serve sentences but instead where they are incarcerated awaiting trial or sentencing, or for some other, generally short-term reason.
Although the vast majority of Bureau of Prisons employees are dedicated public employees doing honorable and important work in difficult circumstances, the agency and its personnel are not perfect. As with any large agency, some bureau personnel have engaged in corruption and misconduct, and in various situations have shown themselves to be incompetent. Over the past 30 years, many cases involving dereliction of duty, corruption and other forms of misconduct have been investigated by the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General and, in some cases, by the FBI. Where appropriate, those investigations have served as the basis for criminal prosecutions.
Given the many important questions surrounding Epstein’s death, it’s good and appropriate that the Justice Department has announced that the inspector general and the FBI are both investigating, although the scope of their respective roles has not yet been clarified. There is an urgent need for a public accounting that examines all of the events surrounding Epstein’s death. It should look at the circumstances surrounding his initial apparent suicide attempt, any suicide-watch protocols that were put in place, whether those protocols were followed, why the suicide watch may have been ended at some point before Epstein’s death, who had access to him, and what light his recorded phone calls on prison facility phones can shed on his fate. Only through a prompt and thorough investigation, and a detailed and objective public report of that investigation, which the inspector general is uniquely equipped to do, can these important questions be answered.
In the meantime, let’s do the unthinkable these days — tamp down the speculation, limit the conspiracy theorizing and postpone the condemnations, which at this point are based on little or no information. It takes time to gather and analyze the facts and draw reasonable conclusions based on the evidence. Let’s act like grown-ups and wait for that.