Manhattan jail where Jeffrey Epstein died has long history of suicide, neglect

NEW YORK — Jeffrey Epstein lived in a lavish Upper East Side mansion, but he met his end in a hulking building in lower Manhattan. A few blocks away from the jail where he died over the weekend is the federal courthouse where Epstein, who once socialized with both Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, would have faced justice for running what prosecutors have called a vast sex trafficking ring that exploited underage girls.

The accounting never happened: Epstein was found dead in his cell on Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, the federal detention center where he was being held. His likely suicide has left many wondering how a high-profile detainee could have evaded observation long enough to successfully commit the act, especially since he had tried to kill himself only three weeks earlier.

The answer lies with the MCC, where the federal government has held some of the most notorious criminal figures of the past several decades, from organized crime boss John Gotti to drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo. Those held there are detainees, not prisoners, as they are still awaiting trial. As such, they are afforded the same presumption of innocence that all defendants in the American criminal justice system enjoy.

7 PHOTOS
The few publicly-available photos of Jeffrey Epstein
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The few publicly-available photos of Jeffrey Epstein
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: Carol Mack, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell attend Henry Street Settlement Event on May 16, 1995 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
From left, American real estate developer Donald Trump and his girlfriend (and future wife), former model Melania Knauss, financier (and future convicted sex offender) Jeffrey Epstein, and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell pose together at the Mar-a-Lago club, Palm Beach, Florida, February 12, 2000. (Photo by Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 13: Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell attend Batman Forever/R. McDonald Event on June 13, 1995 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Portrait of American financier Jeffrey Epstein (left) and real estate developer Donald Trump as they pose together at the Mar-a-Lago estate, Palm Beach, Florida, 1997. (Photo by Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 7: Guest and Jeffrey Epstein attend Imperia U.S. Launch Party at The Statue Of Liberty at Liberty Island on September 7, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in Cambridge, MA on 9/8/04. Epstein is connected with several prominent people including politicians, actors and academics. Epstein was convicted of having sex with an underaged woman. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Rick Friedman Photography/Corbis via Getty Images)
Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in Cambridge, MA on 9/8/04. Epstein is connected with several prominent people including politicians, actors and academics. Epstein was convicted of having sex with an underaged woman. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)
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While Epstein’s suicide has understandably been front-page news for the past several days, troubling conditions have plagued the MCC as long as the building has stood in lower Manhattan. Intended as an example of improvements in the nation’s carceral system, it instead became an example of that system at its very worst.

“When I would come home from sessions from the MCC, I would tell my wife, ‘I need to do something life-affirming tonight,’” says a former federal prosecutor whose law firm requested he only speak on condition of anonymity when discussing his prior employment. He described his visits to the detention center as “soul-depleting” because of the conditions he witnessed there.

“It was a dark, dank, low-ceilinged prison with obvious rat and roach infestations,” the former federal prosecutor said, comparing the MCC unfavorably to Attica, the notorious New York state prison.

The MCC opened in 1975. The 12-floor building cost $15 million and boasted “central air-conditioning, closed-circuit television, carpeted corridors and no bars at the especially strengthened clear plastic windows.” At the dedication of the building, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Harold Tyler expressed hope that the new facility would have “a great and salutary impact.”

That has not come to pass. A combination of institutional corruption, tolerated cruelty, persistent overcrowding and an eternal lack of proper funding have contributed, over the years, to the jail becoming a “a rat-infested, high-rise hell,” as the news site Gothamist called the MCC in a 2018 report. As for those windows, they look today like nothing more than dull slats of grime.

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The Jeffrey Epstein case
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The Jeffrey Epstein case
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against billionaire financier Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 08: Two of the purported victims of multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild leave a Manhattan court house after a hearing on sex trafficking charges for financier Jeffrey Epstein on July 08, 2019 in New York City. Epstein is charged with having operated a sex trafficking ring in which he sexually abused dozens of underage girls. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Two of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild (R), exit the courthouse after the billionaire financier appeared for a hearing on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg, left, and Marc Fernich during his arraignment in New York federal court, Monday, July 8, 2019. Epstein pleaded not guilty to federal sex trafficking charges. The 66-year-old is accused of creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls from 2002 to 2005. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
NEW YORK, US - JULY 08: David Boies, attorney for the alleged sex victims of the US financier Jeffreey Epstein case, delivers a speech to the media outside the United States Federal Court on July 08, 2019 in New York, United States. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: A residence belonging to Jeffrey Epstein at East 71st street is seen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein is charged with running a sex-trafficking operation out of his opulent mansion. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Prosecutors exit the room after US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Member of the press listen as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: A protest group called "Hot Mess" hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein and President Donald Trump in front of the Federal courthouse on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, Monday, July 8, 2019. Federal prosecutors announced sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Court documents unsealed Monday show Epstein is charged with creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
In this courtroom sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, second from right, listens along with defense attorneys, from left, Marc Fernich, Michael Miller, and Martin Weinberg as Judge Richard M. Berman denies him bail during a hearing in federal court, Thursday, July 18, 2019 in New York. Judge Berman denied bail for the jailed financier on sex trafficking charges, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (Aggie Kenny via AP)
FILE - This March 28, 2017, file photo, provided by the New York State Sex Offender Registry shows Jeffrey Epstein. A judge denied bail for jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges Thursday, July 18, 2019, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP)
In this courtroom sketch, Judge Richard M. Berman speaking as he denies Jeffrey Epstein bail during a hearing in federal court, Thursday, July 18, 2019 in New York. Judge Berman denied bail for the jailed financier on sex trafficking charges, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the "heart of this decision." (Aggie Kenny via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, and his attorney Martin Weinberg listen during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Epstein's lawyers want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
This courtroom sketch shows Judge Richard Berman as he speaks during the Jeffrey Epstein bail hearing in federal court, Monday July 15, 2019. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, listens as accuser Annie Farmer, second from right, speaks during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Farmer says she was 16 when she "had the misfortune" of meeting Epstein and later went to spend time with him in New Mexico. Accuser Courtney Wild, right, said in the hearing that she was abused by the wealthy financier in Palm Beach, Florida, starting at age 14. Epstein's lawyers want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, left, and attorney Reid Weingarten, second from right, listen as attorney Martin Weinberg, right, speaks during a bail hearing in federal court, Monday, July 15, 2019 in New York. Epstein's lawyers have insisted he will not run. They want him released on house arrest to his Manhattan home while he awaits trial. Courtney Wild, third from left, said in the hearing that she was abused by the wealthy financier in Palm Beach, Florida, starting at age 14. She called him a "scary person" and urged detention "for the safety of any other girls" out there. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
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Ron Kuby, the prominent civil rights lawyer, has represented “many, many” people held at the MCC. He explains that because the facility holds so many dangerous suspected criminals, the officials there are guided by a single principle: “Nobody can escape from there.” Kuby struggled to think of a single successful escape from the MCC (though a hijacked helicopter came close to helping a detainee escape in 1981).

“Everything else is secondary to security,” Kuby said, whether it’s medical care or access to legal representation. “The rest is just ... whatever.”

Just four months after the MCC opened, detainees filed suit, contending that their rights were being violated. They compiled a litany of complaints, including overcrowded cells, intrusive searches and a lack of reading material. That legal battle, known as Bell v. Wolfish, ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court four years later. A 5-4 majority led by Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon-appointed conservative, decided that the conditions did not infringe on detainees’ civil rights.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, a longstanding champion of civil rights, disagreed. In a dissenting opinion that would prove prescient, he wrote that “the rights of detainees apparently extend only so far as detention officials decide that cost and security will permit,” sharply criticizing this “unthinking deference to administrative convenience.”

The day after the decision in Bell v. Wolfish was reached by the high court, Roger Stowe of Queens, a ceramics student who had been arrested on drug charges, “slashed his arms with a double‐edged razor blade in his cell,” according to the New York Times. A guard found him “bleeding profusely,” the paper said.

Stowe was the second suicide at the MCC in the first four years of its opening. The first had taken place in 1977, when a detainee accused of robbing a bank with his wife hanged himself. (Hard-to-come-by newspaper accounts of that suicide, along with others at the MCC, have been unearthed by Daily Beast editor Harry Siegel.)

Corruption has also been a problem from the start. In 1976, four guards were accused of facilitating the smuggling of goods for MCC inmate Carmine Galante, a powerful figure in organized crime. Another inmate, Raymond Wean, described the kinds of contraband that could be found inside the seemingly impregnable facility: “Cigars, booze, cigarettes, or anything we wanted,” as Wean put it, according to Anthony M. DeStefano’s “King of the Godfathers.”

As a sign of how little had changed, last year a guard admitted to taking $45,000 from a Turkish-Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, in exchange for contraband such as “alcohol, cellphones, food and vitamin C packets,” according to a Times report.

Most of those confined at the MCC did not have the pull of a Mafia boss or an international financier. Despair came far more easily than Cuban cigars, even for the formerly powerful whose influence did not extend to the fortress on Park Row. Among these was Michele Sidona, an Italian banker who had been accused by American authorities of money laundering. Unwilling to face a jury, he also tried to slash his own wrists. Imprisoned later in Italy, he died of cyanide poisoning in what was believed to be a suicide.

Harsh conditions persisted at the detention center, especially during the tough-on-crime policies of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1993, according to the New York Times, lawyers complained to a judge about the conditions faced by their defendants. "I am not going to micromanage the MCC,” answered the judge, Michael Mukasey, who would later serve as the U.S. attorney general under George W. Bush.

The week after Mukasey made that pronouncement, there was yet another suicide attempt.

Earlier that year, terrorists had attempted to blow up the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The effort failed, but the bomb they set off in the complex’s garage killed six people. The conspirators ended up a few blocks north of the Twin Towers, at the MCC. In November 1993, two of those detainees sought escape via death. They “cut themselves with razors, and one of the two tried to hang himself with a torn bedsheet,” according to the Times. Both were “revived without serious injury.”

Administrations changed in both City Hall and the White House. Criminal justice reforms came and went. But the MCC appeared immune to them all. In 2000, for example, a female former inmate at the MCC alleged in a lawsuit that she had been “repeatedly raped and sexually abused” by an officer of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics while she was detained between 1995 and 1997. Efforts to have MCC administrators take her accusations seriously came to naught, her lawsuit alleged. MCC officials tried to have a summary judgment rendered, but a federal judge refused that motion and the case was eventually settled for $300,000.

In 2014, Roberto Grant was accused of attempting to steal Cartier watches from a Manhattan store. He was sent to the MCC, where he died the following year. Although officials told his mother that he overdosed, there were actually indications that Grant had been severely beaten.

Andrew Laufer, who represented Grant’s mother in a $20 million suit against the Bureau of Prisons, says that “it's absolutely incredible that something like this could have happened there.” He believes that Grant was “choked to death” and that MCC officials engaged in a “cover-up” regarding the causes of Grant’s death.

“They need to staff properly,” Laufer says. “They need to supervise properly. It's grossly negligent all over the place.”

MCC officials did not answer a Yahoo News request for comment.

A similar sentiment was echoed in a suit by Levit Fernandini, who’d been arrested in a 2011 drug raid in the Bronx. In his 2015 lawsuit, Fernandini alleged that “the plumbing was not maintained and that the toilets in the facility overflowed, resulting in unbearable filth and smells.”

In addition, Fernandini’s suit described MCC as “overrun with rats and mice and covered in dust and dust mites.” Fernandini claimed he was “bitten by one of the rats, and that the MCC medical staff forced him to wait for treatment and then failed to provide adequate treatment for his bite.”

Dana Gottesfeld’s husband, Martin Gottesfeld, spent several months in 2016 and 2017 in the MCC after being transferred from a Rhode Island prison where the activist hacker had been on a hunger strike. “This place is really bad,” Dana said of her husband’s time at the Manhattan facility. She recalls, for example, him saying that inmates would stuff balled-up clothing under the doors to keep out rodents and insects. He is now suing over his treatment there and has been transferred to another facility.

Dana Gottesfeld believes that for all its invocations of security, the MCC suffers from a lack of oversight. "They know they can do what they want and get away with it,” she says of the people who work there. Dana believes that "unannounced surprise visits” by Bureau of Prisons officials could help remedy the situation.

Perhaps the most unusual sign of dysfunction at the MCC took place in 2013, when sentencing for Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian would-be assassin of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, had to be postponed because two elevators at the facility simply stopped functioning, and there was no way to transport Arbabsiar from the 10th-floor cell where he was being held.

The elevators were presumably fixed. But the far deeper problems would remain. Much remains unknown about how and why Epstein killed himself. But whatever the ultimate reason, it was a troublingly common fate for federal detainees in lower Manhattan.

The former federal prosecutor who is familiar with operations at the MCC says that anyone who claims to know exactly what happened to Epstein is either “lying or deluded.” He added that "enough things went against standing protocol to doubt the official story."

Epstein’s death has infuriated U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who, speaking on Monday, said that there had been “serious irregularities” at the MCC. He was right. Only they were there long before Epstein crossed the jail’s threshold.

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