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Epstein death will prompt harsh scrutiny of New York jail

Christian Berthelsen, Bob Van Voris and David Voreacos, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Spokespersons for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan declined to comment on Saturday. In announcing Epstein's charges last month, Berman urged additional victims to come forward and said the U.S. investigation was continuing. Epstein's lawyers didn't immediately return phone calls on Saturday.

"Certainly for the Bureau of Prisons, it is not a great reflection on what is usually seen as their goal of keeping all defendants safe even from themselves," said Randall Jackson, a former federal prosecutor who's not involved in the case. "There was already some kind of issue with Epstein so this will probably be the focus of an internal inquiry at the Department of Justice."

Protocols for suicide watches vary, but generally require that guards check on inmates at least every 15 minutes. In some cases, guards are required to keep eyes on an inmate at all times through a window into the cell, logging multiple entries per hour about the inmate's behavior and activities.

Typically, inmates on suicide watch are in a segregated unit with nothing in their cells. They are stripped down and provided a blanket or garment made of special material that can't be used to form a noose. They eat with plastic utensils, or none at all. But suicide protocols can suffer when staffing or resources are limited. At times, jails may not have enough guards to dedicate to monitoring a single inmate at all times.

24/7 Observation

"It technically is impossible to kill yourself on suicide watch. It's 24/7 observation by staff," said Jack Donson, a former career federal prison employee who now works as a prison consultant.


Still, inmates aren't kept on suicide watch indefinitely. Being on suicide watch entails harsh conditions, and there's pressure in the system to remove the restrictions once prisoners have demonstrated stability, experts said. But sometimes, inmates intent on harming themselves can learn to say the right things to convince authorities to lift the monitoring.

"A lot of people have some explaining to do as to how such a high-profile inmate with many risk factors was able to commit suicide," said Lindsey Hayes, a national expert in jail suicide prevention with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. "People need to be held accountable for what happened and hopefully they will."

There were 222 suicides in federal prisons from 2001 to 2014, according to the most recent statistics available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Suicide was third-largest cause of death during that period in those facilities, at 4% of all fatalities.

Given the allegations in Epstein's case that he provided underage girls to rich and powerful figures, his death was already prompting conspiracy theories about possible efforts to silence him. Within hours of Epstein's death Saturday morning, Twitter was alive with talk of possible scenarios, with trending topics including #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount.


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