Are Prisons and Jails Legally Liable For Prison Suicide or Harm?

Convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide on August 10, 2019 while imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York. The disgraced financier was awaiting trial on a new series of sex trafficking charges, and had been denied bail in July. His untimely prison suicide has been subject to speculation, particularly in light of documents unsealed on August 9th that detailed his alleged sexual encounters with underaged girls.

His connections with influential political and financial elites, though diminished in the wake of his 2008 guilty plea for solicitation of minors for prostitution,  led to rampant speculation as to whether his death was truly a suicide.

Falling to the wayside in the debate have been reports that the MCC was often understaffed, a condition that has plagued the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the wake of a 2017 hiring freeze. Coupled with what was either an assault on Epstein by another prisoner or a suicide attempt on July 23rd, and his subsequent removal from suicide watch only six days later, it is clear that many of the circumstances surrounding his death could have been prevented.

Are Prisons and Jails Legally Liable For Prison Suicide or Harm?
The Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York has held a number of famous prisoners. But the facility is chronically understaffed, and suffers from leaky plumbing and pest infestations. (Image credit: Jim Henderson. Licensed via Creative Commons.)

Understaffed prisons are resorting to the use of alternate personnel to stand as guards through a process called ‘augmentation.’

The MCC, like many facilities under the Bureau of Prisons, is chronically understaffed, which has led to prisons overworking guards. To bolster their personnel numbers, these prisons have started placing other untrained staff in place of trained guards, including teachers, nurses, and clerical workers. Like the guards, these temporary additions must work mandatory overtime to cover shifts that otherwise would go unfilled.

None of these ‘augmentations’ to a guard force were as trained or experienced as fully qualified guards. In the event there was trouble brewing in a housing unit, these individuals would be ill-prepared to identify respond or to protect themselves or prisoners from harm.

The hiring freeze has made it impossible for the BOP to hire adequate numbers of guards, and its facilities in New York have gone understaffed as a result. Attorney General William Barr acknowledged in a April 2019 hearing that the system has as many as 6,000 vacancies to fill. At least 4,600 of these vacancies opened under the Trump administration.

Overworked guards left Epstein and many other federal prisoners without adequate supervision.

Two guards who were assigned to watch Epstein on the morning of his death were reportedly on mandatory overtime. One was a former correctional officer who had volunteered to return to the position for the additional pay. The other was a worker who was not trained as a correctional officer, but was ordered to work overtime as a guard due to inadequate staffing.

The guards claimed they had conducted their mandatory half-hour checks on the financier’s holding unit. But security footage showed they had not checked on his cell for over three hours prior to his death because they had fallen asleep. They reportedly falsified their duty logs to cover up their negligence.

Both guards were placed on administrative leave, and warden for the MCC was reassigned.

Epstein was placed on suicide watch after he was found injured in his unit July 23rd, 2019, but was allowed to return to a cell with minimal supervision after six days.

When Epstein was first taken to the MCC, he shared a cell with Nicholas Tartaglione, a former NYPD officer accused of quadruple homicide. Tartaglione was accused of assaulting Epstein in their cell, which he has vigorously denied. His lawyers claim that he and Epstein had been getting along before the alleged assault. An official investigation into the alleged assault ultimately cleared Epstein’s former cellmate of any wrongdoing.

Sources at the MCC claimed that Epstein’s injuries were minor and the result of self-harm, either as an attempt at suicide or to win a transfer to a new facility through either a feigned suicide attempt or attack. After the alleged suicide/assault, Epstein was moved to a new location within the MCC and placed under suicide watch. Here, he was in isolation and under constant light, with nothing that could be repurposed for self-harm anywhere within reach. He would have been under constant observation, and BOP rules required a daily session with a psychologist.

But after six days, Epstein was cleared from suicide watch and returned to his own cell, where his former cellmate had been transferred out. His own lawyers had reportedly lobbied to have him taken off this level of observation.

However, this arrangement was in violation of the MCC’s own regulations. Prisoners who have returned from suicide watch are typically housed with another inmate.

Robert Hood, the former chief of internal affairs for the BOP, claims that his Epstein’s prior suicide attempt and the ongoing media frenzy around his upcoming trial should have prompted continued close observation. If his mental condition was indeed deteriorating rapidly, then the minimal supervision, coupled with the lack of cellmate, may have allowed Epstein to act when no one was looking.

Epstein’s death may prove to be another example of the ongoing US prison suicide epidemic.

A combination of the stressors of imprisonment, neglect and abuse from prison guards, inadequate care facilities, and untreated mental illness has made prison populations increasingly vulnerable to suicide. It is the most prevalent cause of death in US jails, peaking in 2014 at 50 deaths per 100,000 inmates.

The ongoing staffing crisis faced by the prison system further exacerbates these issues, as facilities do not have the manpower to adequately monitor the incarcerated, particularly those who are showing signs of suicidal thoughts or actions.

When negligence or abuse are factors in a suicide, it has become increasingly more difficult to hold individuals and facilities accountable. The Federal BOP is notorious for its limited responses to reports of abuse and misconduct. As was seen with Epstein’s suicide, records for cell checks are falsified, and is one of the most common factors in many prison and jail suicide cases.

Lawsuits have become increasingly more difficult to pursue against facilities and staff, limiting the options for families of prisoners.

Many lawsuits filed in cases of suicide argue that they are the result of Eighth Amendment violations. These claims say that the abuse and neglect that ultimately contribute to prison suicide constitute as cruel and unusual punishment. Some facilities have paid damages or made settlements for suicide deaths:

  • In May 2019, the state of Michigan settled for $860,000 with the family of an inmate who committed suicide in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Prison guard Dianna Callahan was caught on video betting a Subway sandwich on whether or not the victim would actually commit suicide, and then gloating after her cries for assistance were heard.
  • In December 2018, a federal jury ordered St. Claire County, Illinois to pay $301,000 to the family of a suicide victim incarcerated at the St. Claire County Jail. Guards were told by the victim that they were going to commit suicide, to which they responded, “Do what you want to do.”
  • This August, California settled with the family of deceased prisoner of the California Institution for Women in Southern California for a total of $1,501,550. The victim was a known suicide risk and had a record of self-harm and suicide attempts during her incarceration, but was removed from suicide watch without following proper step-down procedures in 2016. She had been dead for several hours before the body was discovered.

But these cases tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. In 1996, the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act limited the ability of inmates to file lawsuits against their facilities or individual guards, forcing them to first use their prison’s systems to file grievances, and then to exhaust any such internal options before they can file a lawsuit.

Even if the Supreme Court sides with a prisoner over cases of abuse and neglect, this may not be enough for a jury.

In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled on Farmer v. Brennan that prisons owed the incarcerated protection from harm, and that any prison officials who were “deliberately indifferent” could face liability under Eighth Amendment violations.

Dee Farmer was a transgender woman who was imprisoned in a male general population facility in Indiana. She was beaten and raped repeatedly by other inmates, and contracted HIV. She argued that prison officials knew she was at risk, but placed her in danger nonetheless.

But in the 1997 retrial for her claims against the prison, a jury sided against her, finding the testimony of her rape implausible. She went on to serve another 11 years in prison before being released after developing serious HIV related complications.

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide is another black mark on a prison system in need of reform, funding, and trained personnel, plagued by neglect, abuse, and indifference. His prison suicide is not a unique occurrence, but rather the almost expected result of a system that is increasingly ill equipped to properly watch over the incarcerated. His victims will still have their day against his multi-million-dollar estate, but for the systemic issues that allowed him a final escape from the courts, there appears to be no changes in the foreseeable future.

Author’s Note: Every state has different laws and requirements for how prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities handle prisoners, as well as how any disputes filed by prisoners over abuse or mistreatment are dealt with. Federal facilities also fall under different jurisdictions, which can affect how claims progress.

In the event that a loved one in prison has indicated that they are being abused, is witnessing abuse, or has committed self-harm or suicide, it is best to seek legal counsel who is local to the region where they are or were incarcerated. They will be more familiar with the laws that govern the facilities in question, which can help you with filing your damage claims.

This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic. For a full review of our disclaimer and policies, please click here.

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