The reported suicide on Saturday of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein in a federal jail cell in the heart of Manhattan was both utterly shocking and completely predictable. It’s shocking that the Bureau of Prisons was unable to keep Epstein alive pending his federal sex trafficking trial and that jail officials, knowing the world was watching this case so closely, allowed his death even after Epstein’s apparent failed attempt to take his own life three weeks ago. That’s negligence by definition, whether the celebrity defendant was placed on or taken off “suicide watch.”
But inmate suicides are such a regular part of life in American prisons and jails that none of us should be surprised whenever they occur. They are the leading cause of death behind bars, and have been for many years, and the problem seems to be getting worse. The latest statistics, from 2014, tell us the rate of suicides in jails was the highest it’s been since at least 2000. This even though there is more public awareness surrounding the phenomenon and a cry for better records (and details) about the number of suicides that take place each year.
Inmate suicides are an epidemic corrections officials won’t talk about. The deaths transcend race and geography. They occur, as we saw with Epstein, in federal jails in big cities and they occur in lonely rural prisons. They occur where a pretrial detainee has been jailed just days earlier, as was the case with Sandra Bland in Texas, and they occur where a convicted prisoner has been left to languish for months or years in solitary confinement. Not every suicide can be prevented, of course, but scores of inmates could be saved every year if corrections officials would just earnestly protect those in their custody and control.
These deaths occur not just because guards are poorly trained and jails understaffed, nor because often the procedures in place to protect suicidal inmates are woefully outdated and inadequate. The biggest problem is one of attitude. Inmates are able to commit suicide because their guards have dehumanized them to the point where they don’t care enough whether they live or die. Epstein’s death reminded me of the remorseless, cruel attitude that allows inmates to be kept shackled even in death, when they leave for the local morgue.
Take Ohio, as an example. Remember Ariel Castro, the high-profile “Cleveland kidnapper”? He killed himself in a jail cell in October 2013 and then his guards falsified their logs to hide their incompetence. Remember Billy Slagle? He committed suicide in an Ohio jail hours after prosecutors discovered evidence that might have spared him. Pick a state, any state, and similar stories abound. Hundreds of men and women kill themselves in their cells. How many guards do you think are disciplined when these suicides occur? How many lose their jobs?
Nor should any of us be surprised that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), our national prison system, is the scene of so many suicides. Federal prison officials for years, for decades, have refused to acknowledge the scope of the problem. For instance, in the wake of a spate of suicides a few years ago they sent out a note to inmates encouraging the despairing among them to come forward. When one inmate, Percy Barron, came forward asking for such help he was ignored. So he tried to kill himself, failed, and then was punished for breaking BOP rules.
Nearly six years ago I wrote about the suicide of Robert Gerald Knott, who killed himself at the ADX Florence penitentiary in Colorado. We know the grim details of Knott’s last moments only because a fellow prisoner, Jabbar Currence, chronicled the suicide and then shared what he had seen with his lawyer. Congressional oversight? Don’t bet on it. I’ve watched countless hours of Capitol Hill testimony from Bureau of Prisons officials and the only thing I ever learned is that there is no transparency or accountability within the BOP. It is its own fiefdom.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Saturday that Epstein’s death was “appalling” and that the Justice Department already is investigating the matter. Congress, too, wants answers about how this could happen to a high-profile inmate in one of the most secure jails in the nation. The feds said over the weekend that Epstein was taken off a suicide watch on July 29, less than one week after his reported failed suicide attempt. Who made this dubious decision, and why, must be shared with the public in the investigations to come.
Until then, and likely afterward, Epstein’s death will be enveloped by conspiracy theories, many of which surfaced before his body got cold. The only real conspiracy here is the ageless one between and among prison guards and jail officials who too often treat at-risk inmates with callous disregard and deliberate indifference. Too many guards just don’t care whether a prisoner lives or dies. Until that changes, each year hundreds of men and women, both the guilty and the innocent, will die, desperate and alone in their cells.