Many prison suicides could have been prevented, says Justice Department Watchdog

Dozens of inmates, including disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, have died needlessly in federal prisons because of lax supervision, access to contraband and poor monitoring of high-risk inmates, according to a report released Thursday by a Justice Department watchdog.

The Bureau of Prisons, responsible for around 155,000 prisoners, routinely subjects prisoners to conditions that put them at increased risk of self-harm, drug overdose, accidents and violence, the chief inspector of the department determined after analyzing 344 deaths from 2013 to 2021 that were not caused by diseases.

More than half of those deaths were suicides, many of which could have been prevented if inmates had received a proper mental health evaluation or been housed with other inmates in accordance with departmental guidelines instead of being left alone, as Mr. Epstein concluded. in the report. .

The report “identified several operational and management deficiencies” that violated the bureau’s standing policies, said Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general, whose investigators had previously concluded that Mr. Epstein’s death at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in 2019 was the result of gross negligence and inadequacy. staff.

Investigators found “unsafe conditions” in nearly all the deaths they analyzed, Mr. Horowitz said. The number of such deaths in the federal system is steadily increasing – to about 50 a year, he added.

Despite the prevalence of conspiracy theories about Mr. Epstein’s death, the circumstances were strikingly similar to many of the 187 inmates who died by suicide during the period covered by the report. The vast majority were white men who committed suicide by hanging, many were housed alone when they took their own lives, and a disproportionate number, 56, were sex offenders — although a relatively small percentage of federal inmates are in prison for such crimes.

Investigators have cited the overuse of single-inmate cells and restrictive solitary confinement as a significant factor in many of the suicides. But they said the bureau’s failure to flag serious mental health problems — classifying troubled inmates as low-risk — was an equally serious misstep.

Several deaths cited in the report summed up the systemic breakdowns.

Officials at an unnamed federal prison placed an inmate who recently tried to kill himself in a cell, without his personal belongings or follow-up medical care, even though he was labeled a suicide risk upon arrival. In another case, investigators found that the psychological evaluation of an inmate who died by suicide was not updated to reflect an increased risk of self-harm, but instead was cut and pasted from a report filed seven years earlier.

A spokesman for the institution said that it sought a broad approach in the treatment of its prisoners.

“We are committed to suicide prevention, substance use disorder treatment and anti-trafficking,” said spokesman Emery Nelson. “Our multidisciplinary approach includes evidence-based treatments, comprehensive staff training, and ongoing efforts to improve screening methods.”

Many of the problems identified by the inspector general are the result, directly or indirectly, of acute staffing shortages among agency officials. The shortage has forced administrators to hire teachers, case managers, health aides, counselors, facility workers and even secretaries to serve as guards, despite having only basic security training.

In this regard, the Institute for Prisons is not alone. State and local law enforcement agencies across the country, especially corrections departments, are struggling to hire and retain employees at all levels as better-paying, less demanding jobs lure away people facing rising housing, food and transportation costs.

Colette S. Peters, director of the bureau, enacted several measures to address this problem. But she has had limited success in getting the big increases in funding needed to raise salaries enough or to repair dilapidated infrastructure in many of the system’s 122 prisons and camps.

Investigators, who conducted on-site tours and analyzed bureau records, also found staggering gaps in the oversight of 70 inmates who died of drug overdoses during the period covered by the report.

Inmates were, in some cases, able to smuggle opioids using drones that flew into prisons at night. Others easily hid the drugs in trash bags after working on cleaning details outside the prison walls.

In one landmark episode, corrections officers inspecting the cell of an inmate who committed suicide by overdose found a hidden stash of 1,000 pills that officers had managed to miss during an inspection – including one carried out the day before his death.

But drugs were not the only contraband used by inmates to harm themselves or others. Officers carrying out inquests after the death found a range of metal handles made from nails and spikes, pieces of plastic sharpened into blades and garrotes made from scraps of cloth and string.

Mr. Epstein, the report said, accumulated less conspicuous contraband under the noses of correctional officers — sheets and blankets that he used to create a noose.

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