Even with the eyes of the world on him and the Department of Justice’s vast resources arrayed against him, Jeffrey Epstein was able to commit suicide Saturday while in U.S. custody in downtown Manhattan. Federal law enforcement officials and prison experts have almost uniformly opined about how inconceivable his death is.
And indeed, in this particularly high-profile case, they are right. But what’s very conceivable to anyone familiar with the daily grind of the criminal justice system is what a common occurrence it is for people in pretrial detention to take their own lives.
People detained in jails awaiting trial are an astonishing seven times more likely to commit suicide than people incarcerated in prisons.
The leading cause of death in local jails is suicide. People detained in jails awaiting trial are an astonishing seven times more likely to commit suicide than people incarcerated in prisons after being convicted and sentenced.
Why such stark figures? They are the result of a toxic mix: deplorable jail conditions, such as unsanitary facilities and a lack of medical services, combined with incarcerated people — a large number of whom suffer from mental illness — who are at their most vulnerable immediately after being arrested.
One might expect conditions at jails to be better than prisons. After all, people awaiting trial have been convicted of nothing; unlike prison, the purpose of jail is expressly not punishment but assurance of the person’s presence in court and the safety of the community until the case is resolved.
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And yet, the reality is that, jails as compared to prisons are overwhelmingly more difficult places to do time (no easy feat given the miserable state of many prisons). Fewer resources, minimal oversight and a transient inmate population lead to a host of serious problems. Stories from around the country are legion about shockingly inhumane jail conditions.
Consider Sacramento, California, where the local jail lacks even basic medical or mental health care. Or Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where people are served moldy food and sleep on cell floors next to broken toilets reeking of feces and urine. Or Etowah County in Alabama, where the local sheriff got rich by depriving detained people of food so he could keep the money budgeted for buying it.
Federal pretrial facilities can be just as bad. My office, the Federal Defenders of New York, has hundreds of clients at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan, where Epstein was being held, and the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. Many who were initially held on state charges at Rikers and then brought to the MCC or the MDC to face federal charges have asked me if they can return to Rikers, notorious for its terrible environment, because of the appalling federal jail conditions.
Among the worst of the problems is the abysmal state of medical care. My office’s lawyers constantly battle the MCC and the MDC to get our clients appropriate medical treatment for serious issues. Mental health care is virtually nonexistent despite the high incidence of mental illness. The response we often receive is that they simply don’t have the staff.
When those conditions are combined with the dangerously fragile mental state of people who have just been arrested, the high rates of suicide are no surprise. Imagine being plucked from your life, separated from your family and losing your job and your home — all on the same day. Think about enduring just one of those events while also suffering the jail conditions described above. Then consider that nearly half of the people in jails enter them having been previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder. It’s a recipe for disaster.
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Epstein, with his wealth and power, may not elicit much sympathy. But some 80 percent of federal defendants in New York City are too poor to hire a lawyer and roughly half are charged with nonviolent drug and immigration offenses. Most will be released within a few years, but in the first few days and weeks of their incarceration, many can feel their lives are over.
It is well past time to fundamentally rethink pretrial detention. Nobody should be subjected to these conditions, especially not people presumed innocent. The most straightforward way to address the problem is to drastically reduce the number of people in jail in the first place, starting by giving them reasonable bail conditions they can meet. That would begin to improve conditions at a place like the MCC, built in the 1970s for many fewer people than are now held there.
The second priority should be real accountability for those who run the jails. What sort of response can we expect from the Epstein suicide? I’m not optimistic about meaningful reform coming from inside the Department of Justice even though Attorney General William Barr has announced an investigation. Previous investigations into the MCC and the MDC have not resulted in improvement.
I’m not optimistic about meaningful reform coming from inside the Department of Justice even though Attorney General William Barr has announced an investigation.
Last winter, when the MDC lost power and heat during one of the coldest stretches in the city’s history, officials there downplayed the situation and outright hid the extreme problems with temperatures, lack of medical care and unsanitary conditions until The New York Times broke the story. Only when images were etched in the public eye of inmates tapping the thick glass as a cry for help was remedial action taken. But in the wake of the debacle, the warden was promoted to a regional position.
Rather than expecting the Justice Department to police itself, Congress should overhaul the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law passed at the height of the tough-on-crime era that severely restricts prisoners’ ability to bring lawsuits over dangerous conditions or abusive treatment. Maybe then the jails would be forced to provide the sort of medical care and mental health treatment that are so desperately needed.
The Epstein case is a tragedy all around. Let’s hope that, at the very least, his death brings attention to the inhumanity of the nation’s jails and the possibility of real reform.