America’s Correctional System Is Broken; Epstein’s Death Not Surprising, Union Official Says

August 16, 2019 by HJ Mai
A death row inmate is escorted back to his East Block cell after spending time in the yard at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, Calif., on August 16, 2016. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The apparent suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein has not only derailed the pursuit of justice for his alleged victims, it also highlighted a slew of problems within America’s federal prison system. 

In the aftermath of Epstein’s death on Aug. 10, a number of issues emerged that likely contributed to his alleged suicide at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. 

Staffing shortages, mandated overtime, employees falsifying records and a lack of oversight have all been reported as potentially contributing factors that saw another high-profile inmate evade justice. 

“We have a correctional system that is broken,” Tyrone Covington, national vice-president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, told The Well News. 

“The staff within the system is overly tasked, working hours on hours on end of overtime, mandated overtime. When you work these many hours you cannot function correctly. We have been calling the alarm on this for a long time … This is not an isolated incident,” Covington said.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr addressed Epstein’s death at an event in New Orleans on Monday.

“I was appalled… and frankly angry to learn of the MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner,” he said. “We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and that demand a thorough investigation. The FBI and the [Justice Department’s] Office of the Inspector General are already doing just that. We will get to the bottom of what happened at the MCC and we will hold people accountable for this failure.”

A day later, the Justice Department announced that it had placed two guards assigned to watch Epstein on the night he apparently killed himself on administrative leave and removed the jail’s warden as federal authorities continue their investigation into the financier’s death. 

“I wasn’t surprised by a suicide taking place in prison,” Convington said when asked about the the Epstein case. “These things happen unfortunately.”

Covington said, however, that corrections staff doesn’t differentiate between regular inmates and high-profile inmates like Epstein. “Whether you are high profile or just someone from the neighborhood, you get the same treatment,” he said.

Earlier this year, Barr said the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for the care of incarcerated individuals in the federal system, is struggling to fill around 5,000 vacancies. The most recent government shutdown, as well as continued budget cuts have contributed to this situation.

Even though Barr lifted a hiring freeze at the DOJ that had been put in place by his predecessor, the damage within the federal prison system has been done. 

“You can’t just shut the system down and think that you can hit switches and it automatically restarts,” Covington said. “We need human resources personnel to simply hire people, but they are also understaffed. We just can’t get out from underneath this.” 

Covington said that it takes about six months before a potential employee is ready to join the correctional staff at a federal facility. He also thinks that the DOJ could make the position of correctional officer more attractive by giving people the opportunity to specialize and earn higher wages. 

“I think the community and the public should be alarmed at staffing levels of those federal prisons in their districts, because this type of stuff that happened here in New York can come to a theater near you. And it could be something that’s absolutely worse. We are hoping the public, Congress and the White House see this and do what’s right.”

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