Senators Grill Head of Prisons Over Epstein Death

Guard towers and razor wire ring the compound at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

WASHINGTON (CN) – While the director of the Bureau of Prisons told a Senate panel Tuesday she has not been briefed on details of an investigation into the jailhouse death of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, lawmakers pushed back and said the public deserves the truth.

“Christmas ornaments, drywall and Epstein – name three things that don’t hang themselves. That’s what the American people think,” Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, said. “And they deserve some answers. And I know you’re not in charge of these investigations, but you talk to the people who are. … Tell the American people what happened.”

What happened to one of the most high-profile federal inmates in recent history is at the center of an ongoing investigation by the FBI and other agencies, Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Epstein, 66, was arrested on sex-trafficking charges weeks before his death, more than a decade after he cut a 2007 plea deal in Florida after being accused of sexual activity with dozens of minors. He had boasted of friendships with some of the most powerful men in the world, including President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton.

After the financier was found dead in New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center on Aug. 10, the medical examiner’s report determined that Epstein hanged himself.

Negligence of correctional officers in federal prisons was the focus of the Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, the same day that two guards were charged with conspiracy and filing false records for their alleged failure to check on Epstein before his death.

Sawyer acknowledged that issues such as officers sleeping on the job have been an ongoing problem.

“We have a few, sir, and we’ve been monitoring the cameras … at every one of our institutions to determine how well and how effective our staff members are doing their rounds,” she said in response a question from Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, about prison staff taking naps. “We have found a couple of other instances and we’ve immediately referred those to the inspector general’s office.”

Malfunctioning cameras – specifically the ones that monitored a hallway to the cell where Epstein was held – was another issue scrutinized by lawmakers Tuesday.

Sawyer said that many of her agency’s cameras are analog machines, often producing a grainy and unclear picture of what they are focused on.

The Bureau of Prisons was behind in establishing funding to replace these cameras, but in the last year it received money to replace all cameras in federal facilities with up-to-date technology — although the implementation process is ongoing, she said.

Significant staffing shortages in the agency have led to untrained people in guard positions, which have been filled through augmentation — the process of temporarily filling security posts with correctional workers from other areas of the agency.

Sawyer was tapped in August to head up the Bureau of Prisons, a position she first held from 1992 to 2003. When she retired in 2003, staff members were already thinly stretched, she told lawmakers Tuesday. The federal prison system then grew by 47,000 inmates with only 7,000 new staffers.

“In one year alone, we were required to open 10 new institutions with 3,000 less positions than we had had the year before. That’s a 6,000 drop in position coverage that we had across the bureau,” Sawyer said. “What happens when you’re stretched so thin, the staff had to make it work because we can’t control our population. … We grew so big, with so few staff, that we were stretched to our limits.”

Lawmakers also discussed the implementation of the First Step Act, the landmark criminal-justice bill signed into law last year that aims to prevent inmates from committing new crimes after being released from custody. The program looks to help nonviolent offenders reenter society by helping develop their skills, and also seeks to help inmates through drug treatment programs.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, noted Tuesday that as part of this new program, the Department of Justice was required to develop a scoring system for the risk of recidivism for individual inmates.

The tool is “so fundamentally unfair, that it cannot stand without challenge,” Durbin said, pointing to disparities between the scores of white and black inmates. In a test run of this tool, Durbin said 29% of white inmates were deemed to be high-risk for returning to prison while 59% of African American inmates were designated the same.

“Part of the problem is the tool doesn’t distinguish between a traffic stop and a murder conviction. It simply measures the risk that someone will be arrested or return to the federal system, and an arrest is not a new crime. A conviction is a new crime,” Durbin said.

Sawyer said these evaluations only included arrests as counting towards a higher risk rating, but Durbin argued the disparities between people of different races and their arrest rates are still a major issue in the U.S.

“And when we’re talking about driving while black, driving while this and that, I mean, let’s be very honest and candid in what we face in this country today,” he said. “The arrest of an African-American man after the circumstances we’ve described here is still too prevalent.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said Wednesday that he thought Sawyer had indicated a strong desire to make sure lawmakers’ goals were achieved in the implementation of the First Step Act, adding he was satisfied with the energy of Sawyer’s responses.

Whitehouse said he didn’t know if Sawyer would be able to disclose information about the investigation into Epstein’s death.

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