Death in Custody: How the Bureau of Prisons Let Jeffrey Epstein Slip Through the Cracks

Jeffrey Epstein’s death raised dozens of questions about the state of wealth inequality in the United States and exposed strange and disturbing details about his personal life, social circles and his creepy Manhattan home. Perhaps one of the most unsettling parts of this twisted story involves the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons, its security oversight, and the circumstances that led to Epstein’s suicide.

The New York Times reported in August that Epstein used his vast financial resources to manipulate his experience in federal custody, often escaping his cramped, dank, and vermin-infested cell for up to twelve hours a day until he was discovered unresponsive at approximately 6:30 a.m. on Jul. 23, 2019.

Responding to the media’s inquiries into the federal prison’s role in Epstein’s death, Attorney General William Barr publicly confirmed that he had consulted with the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General, Michael E. Horowitz, who opened an investigation into the situation at the prison.

In order to understand how prison omissions contributed to Epstein’s death, consider last year’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) Review of the Department of Justice’s implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (DCRA) replaced its predecessor bill and was passed to combat the lack of available information regarding deaths in correctional institutions and deaths related to law-enforcement. The DCRA requires state and federal law enforcement agencies to report to the Attorney General information regarding the death of any person who is (1) detained by law enforcement, (2) under arrest, (3) in the process of being arrested, (4) en route to be incarcerated or detained, or (5) incarcerated at any correctional facility. Data is primarily collected through the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a branch of the Department of Justice.[1]

In 2018, Mr. Horowitz’ office published a review of the agency’s implementation of this legislation and assessed the Department’s management of the federal DCRA data collection. The results of this review exposed significant deficiencies in the nation-wide agency’s implementation of DCRA.

The results of the review illuminated a disorganized and inefficient implementation of the DCRA. In fact, the OIG found that a number of federal law enforcement agencies had failed to submit the required DCRA reports, the Department was two years delinquent in collecting arrest-related death data despite the DCRA’s specifications, DOJ’s State DCRA data collection is duplicative of other department efforts, and ultimately uncovered that the DOJ does not have plans to issue a DCRA-required report to Congress.

Most relevant to Epstein’s situation, however, is the report’s finding that the Bureau of Prisons has not consistently provided times of inmate deaths, a DCRA-required data point. This particular piece of information, absent in BOP component records, is crucial according to the BJS Principal Deputy Director because it allows the DOJ to test the hypothesis that there are more “deaths at night, when a correctional institution may have fewer correctional or medical staff on duty.”[2]

As of last Spring, the BOP was one of DOJ’s largest employers, with about 35,500 employees. Given the size of inmate populations, staffing BOP facilities comes with distinct challenges. This particular data point is critical to understanding how deficient personnel management contributed to the conditions Epstein exploited when he hung himself on the morning of Jul. 23. In 2018, the BOP positively responded[3] to the OIG’s finding, assuring the DOJ that it would ensure correct documentation of the times of death in custody cases. The effects of this promised compliance will be revealed once the BJS is able to comprehensively analyze this data. If the findings support the BJS Director’s hypothesis, the DOJ and BOP must reorient resources to ensure greater overnight supervision to prevent future such miscarriages of the criminal justice system.

[1]“According to a BJS official, when a new data collection begins, it can take a few years for all respondents to provide data. As a result, BJS is still collecting FY 2016 and FY 2017 DCRA reports from agencies that have yet to provide data for either one or both years and is continuing to reach out to additional agencies to identify the full universe of federal law enforcement agencies.” Review of the Department of Implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013.

[2] Found on Page 9 of the OIG Report

[3] Found in Appendix 4 of the OIG Report.