Senators demand answers on Jeffrey Epstein's prison death

"Christmas ornaments, drywall, and Jerry [sic] Epstein,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said. “Name three things that don't hang themselves. That's what the American people think."

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The director of the federal Bureau of Prisons was urged Tuesday to push for quicker results in the investigations into the death of Jeffrey Epstein, given what one senator said was public skepticism that Epstein died by suicide.

"Christmas ornaments, drywall, and Jerry [sic] Epstein,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said. “Name three things that don't hang themselves. That's what the American people think, and they deserve some answers."

Both the FBI and the inspector general of the Department of Justice are investigating Epstein's death. His body was found the morning of Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York where he was awaiting trial on charges of sexually assaulting young women. The medical examiner concluded that the cause was suicide. Two correctional officers were charged Tuesday with failing to perform the required checks on Epstein during the previous night.

A grand jury indictment said Michael Thomas and Tova Noel instead stayed mostly at their desks, surfing the internet and falling asleep for roughly two hours. When Epstein's body was discovered, Noel told a supervisor "Epstein hung himself" and Thomas said, "We messed up" and "We didn't do any rounds," according to the indictment.

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Prisons director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer said she was not told in advance of the charges. "If there's any misconduct, we don't want people like that working in the Bureau of Prisons. They do not represent the vast majority of the 35,000 employees."

Sawyer told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that she has seen nothing to suggest that Epstein's death was the result of anything other than suicide. Asked if there was any evidence to suggest otherwise, she said no. But she declined to answer other questions about the suicide, explaining that she is barred from reviewing the evidence or talking to prison staff about the death while the investigations are underway.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., harshly criticized the bureau for allowing Epstein to die by suicide, then saying it can't comment publicly about what happened.

"Let's just be clear. You're in your job because of this crisis. With all due respect, you still have an obligation to speak to the girls who were raped by this guy," Sasse said.

"We believe in America that every individual has equal dignity. But not every inmate has equal value for future criminal investigations. Jeffrey Epstein was still to testify in a case. It isn't just about the individual inmate who might kill themselves, it's about the fact that that bastard wasn't able to testify about his other co-conspirators."

Sawyer said the bureau has not made any major changes in policy as a result of Epstein's suicide. The policies weren't the problem, she said, it was a few employees who didn't follow the rules. Asked if there's a widespread problem of employees sleeping on the job, she said, only "a few," based on the results of a review of cameras at the bureau's prisons nationwide.

Those instances have been referred to the Justice Department inspector general. If other employees simply refuse to do their jobs, "we want them gone one way or the other, by prosecution or termination."

Sawyer was the director of the prisons bureau from 1992 to 2003. Attorney General William Barr brought her back in August after Epstein's suicide.

CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2019, 1:26 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the prison where Epstein died. It is the Metropolitan Correctional Center, not the Metropolitan Corrections Center.