After news spread that financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had allegedly taken his own life before he could face the charges of sexually assaulting and trafficking dozens of girls and young women, Attorney General William Barr said he was “angry” and “appalled” that such a thing could happen at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein was being held.
But for years, MCC has been plagued by filthy conditions, abusive guards, and a severe lack of medical care, as Gothamist documented in an extensive investigation last year. Defense attorneys, former inmates, and others with direct knowledge of conditions at MCC said Epstein’s death epitomized how all individuals, even the most infamous people on the planet, are treated in the facility.
Susan Kellman has been working as a federal defense attorney and representing clients at MCC for about 30 years, and described the MCC’s recent condition as “the worst that it’s ever been.”
Kellman said that one of her clients, a young man, has been in the Special Housing Unit—the unit where Epstein died—for the three and a half years.
“His entire window is covered in mold,” she said, and because the hot and cold water in the cell come out of different taps, her client can’t even take a shower without getting frozen or scorched.
She recalled that she’d had one client at the facility who was charged with observing and safeguarding suicidal prisoners, since there weren’t enough correctional officers to do the job. (It has been reported that understaffing likely played a role in Epstein’s death.)
“So they have inmates patrolling the suicide block so that they keep an eye on the people rather than people [who] get paid by the government doing it,” Kellman said. “Do they really care? Do they watch? Who knows!”
Kellman described a third client who suffers from mental health issues as well as severe asthma, but has been unable to get the nebulizer treatment she says she needs to control the disease. During one visit, Kellman said her client’s breathing was so labored she couldn’t carry on a conversation: “I couldn’t talk to her, because she couldn’t breathe.”
Over the spring, Gothamist was in touch with two women held at the facility, who said they were denied basic medical care, and that their cells routinely flooded with sewage.
“Toilet waste and feces were all over the floors of all the cells, common area, and other departments on the floor and the female inmates were the ones who had to clean it all up without proper equipment,” one detainee wrote in a message. The woman, whose name is being withheld at her request out of fear of retaliation, described how her floormates got feces on “their hands, legs, faces, hair, all over” and said the “difficulty breathing due to the smell was and is indescribable.”
Kellman said that it makes little difference to the COs at MCC whether an inmate is a billionaire financier or not—everyone is regarded with disdain. "[The prisoners would] be lucky if they were treated like dirt under somebody else’s shoe, but they’re not even treated that well."
These conditions persist at MCC despite the fact that people held there have not yet been convicted of a crime, and thus are supposed to benefit from the presumption of innocence.
Joshua Dratel, a New York City-based federal defense attorney who has been representing people detained at MCC for many years, said it was impossible to conclude anything about Epstein’s death until the autopsy was released and the incident was investigated.
“But I will say that the problems that have been created by overcrowding and understaffing and underresourcing at MCC leave a lot of gaps in care and attention of all types, whether its people who are suicidal, people who need medical care, people who need psychiatric care, people who need spiritual guidance or religious accommodation, people who need programming, so they don’t just get warehoused there,” Dratel said. “All of that is lacking.”
Dratel also pointed to the Bail Reform Act of 1984—which made it easier for federal judges to detain people while they were awaiting trial, including if they were perceived as a threat to public safety—as a key factor in the deterioration of conditions at MCC. When he first started practicing law forty years ago, Dratel said only a small percentage of his clients were locked up before standing trial. Today, pretrial confinement is the norm.
“Virtually every indigent client” he is assigned is denied release after arrest, said Dratel, posing a tremendous challenge to their ability to prepare for trial.
“I don’t know if people have a sense of what these places are like. But they are dangerous, chaotic, suffocating, and difficult,” he told Gothamist. “I’m only there an hour or two at the time and it's tough. You feel it. You appreciate every normal interaction that you have there with people because it’s not necessarily the default.”
MCC is overseen by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department. The Justice Committee within the House of Representatives—specifically the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations ultimately has oversight power over the BOP. After Gothamist’s report detailing the abuse at MCC was published last year, Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, along with several other state and city officials, asked the BOP to explain the “disturbing and inadequate” conditions at MCC. It’s unclear if the inquiry yielded any results. The office of Rep. Karen Bass of California, the chair of the subcommittee, did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Bureau of Prisons has not yet returned our request for comment.
Public outrage seems to have little effect on how the BOP operates. Last winter, hundreds of people protested outside of Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center after inmates were left without heat and electricity for days, and some attorneys said their clients went without medical care. Elected officials, defense attorneys and even federal judges took notice of what one lawsuit deemed a “humanitarian crisis,” but the warden of MDC faced no repercussions, even as he sought to minimize and obscure what was taking place. That warden was recently promoted and now oversees a complex of three federal prisons in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
By Tuesday afternoon, both the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been tasked with investigating Epstein’s death, alongside the New York Medical Examiner’s Office. Several Democratic members of Congress, including at least one presidential hopeful, have also called for an in-depth investigation into what happened.
A close friend of a man currently detained at MCC, who asked that her name be withheld to protect him from retaliation, said she was glad that the facility was coming under scrutiny by the media and politicians, and also disappointed that it took Epstein’s death to trigger this interest.
“What a shame it is that it took a big name, a casualty of a big name person—like all those other lives that were affected and lost don’t matter,” the woman said. “They didn’t matter beforehand. What has to happen before people sit up and take notice?”