MANHATTAN (CN) – Months after the Metropolitan Correctional Center was celebrated for keeping hold of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — the drug lord who famously broke out twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico — Jeffrey Epstein’s reported suicide there embroils a criminal probe that implicates some of the most powerful men in the world in child sex trafficking.
Beneath its fortress-like public image, however, the 12-story structure where Epstein was found dead on Saturday is no stranger to high-profile security failures.
One pending lawsuit accuses MCC of covering up the fatal beating of inmate Roberto Grant in 2015 as an overdose. Another inmate, Reza Zarrab, purports to have survived an attempted assassination at the MCC two years later, retribution for implicating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an Iranian money-laundering scheme that is the biggest ever charged in U.S. history.
Inside the MCC, sex and bribery scandals abound, as do ubiquitous reports of smuggled cellphones, one of which purportedly allowed former CIA engineer Joshua Adam Schulte to leak classified data from prison.
Months before the WikiLeaks source purportedly got hold of multiple contraband cellphones, including at least one heavily encrypted device, former MCC guard Victor Casado pleaded guilty in April 2018 to taking a $45,000 bribe from Zarrab to smuggle in a cellphone, alcohol, Dayquil and other items.
Accusations of spectacular security breakdowns inside the MCC were a running feature of Zarrab’s case. Midway through testimony that stretched for more than a week before U.S. District Judge Richard Berman — who also presided over the Epstein case — terror suspect Faouzi Jaber filed a lawsuit accusing Zarrab of raping him at the MCC.
Zarrab called those suspiciously timed claims “fiction,” and Jaber later withdrew his claims.
Against this backdrop, an ex-federal prosecutor offered some insight as to why the MCC’s reputation has been little worse for the wear.
“The problem is that you have a code of silence,” the prosecutor said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Guards do not talk about other guards, and prisoners do not talk about anybody. There are the rare occasions where prisoners bring civil rights suits, but it’s a very strong culture of silence.”
In 2007, the culture of silence was of little help to former MCC guard Nicholas Defonte, convicted of having sex with a female inmate.
Cameron Douglas, the eldest son of “Basic Instinct” star Michael Douglas, features in another lurid report of MCC misconduct. The drug-addicted celebrity scion told a court eight years ago that he got his former lawyer, Jennifer Ridha, to smuggle him Xanax in her bra. Ridha insisted in a tell-all that she kept the pills in her pants pockets.
In the 1990s meanwhile an MCC security lapse nearly cost the government its key cooperating witness in the foiled Bojinka plot, a plan to assassinate Pope John Paul II and blow up two U.S. airliners.
While being held at MCC after his 1995 extradition from Malaysia, Wali Khan Amin Shah nearly escaped the MCC by climbing to an unsecured portion of the prison’s roof. Khan became a cooperating witness against his Bojinka co-conspirators, suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, who carried out the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
More recently, the government faced harsh words from U.S. District Judge William Pauley III in a case that puts the MCC at the heart of a murder cover-up.
“I read the autopsy report,” Pauley said in a July hearing about the death of former MCC inmate Roberto Grant. “He was beaten to death in a dormitory that people are supposed to be supervising, right?”
Grant suffered blunt-force trauma, according to his autopsy, but his family says MCC staffers labeled the death an overdose despite finding no trace of drugs in Grant’s system.
At last month’s hearing, a government attorney insisted that Grant died quickly and that the prison was not negligent. Pauley did not immediately issue a ruling, but his sharp questions left little doubt as to his leanings.
“I really don’t know what duty [the U.S. Bureau of Prisons] believes they do owe to prisoners after what I just heard,” Andrew Laufer, an attorney for Grant’s family, told the judge at the time.
As for the Epstein case, Attorney General William Barr already has observed “serious irregularities” in how the tycoon fared under Bureau of Prisons guidelines. Epstein was reportedly removed from suicide watch before his death and transferred to a section of the jailhouse requiring corrections officers to check in on him every 30 minutes.
Reacting to reports that Epstein was held in MCC’s infamous “9 South” wing, a former federal prosecutor said: “I’ve been on the ninth floor many times, and it really is hermetically sealed from the rest of the population.”
The Washington Post reported that “several” hours passed without such a check-in before Epstein’s death and that the staffer assigned to keep tabs on him was not a corrections officer.
New York City Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson has not yet completed her report, and the incident has sparked separate investigations by the Justice Department’s inspector general and the FBI.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec announced Tuesday that MCC’s warden has been reassigned pending outcome of these probes.
Epstein’s attorneys meanwhile have tapped a storied pathologist for their own investigation: Dr. Michael Baden, who testified in O.J. Simpson’s defense and helped investigate the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.