Jeenah Moon / Reuters

“URGENT,” the emails were marked. Since Jeffrey Epstein’s death at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, at least 20 reporters and shows from a broad cross section of the nation’s major news outlets have reached out for context and comment about the federal penitentiary. I spent a decade trying to get media outlets to pay attention to the MCC, in Lower Manhattan, pleading with journalists for hours on the phone, over email, and in person to launch investigations of the jail. Over and over, for years, these media organizations did not follow up.

Suddenly, there was urgency to talk about the conditions at MCC. The jail now provided an intriguingly grimy backdrop to an already sordid story. The question is whether a sustained light will actually be shined on the conditions there, or whether the widespread fascination with MCC just becomes part of the spectacle.

I spent years, alongside lawyers, civil-rights leaders, concerned citizens, and family members of the incarcerated, taking part in vigils outside MCC to call attention to the inhumanity happening within its walls. Over and over, Department of Justice officials did nothing.

I went to court hearings and read court filings where people being held there attested to the inhumane conditions at MCC. Judges repeatedly refused to intervene. Nearly all were persuaded by the government’s incessant claims that such conditions were justified by necessity and national security.

When the news broke about Epstein’s death, Attorney General William Barr said he was shocked, calling for an investigation into the “serious irregularities” at MCC. Then on Tuesday, attempting to foist the blame on underlings, he reassigned the warden and put two guards on administrative leave.

This is willful shock, a deeply disingenuous surprise. The scandal is not a few rogue employees. The surprise is not that a man in federal custody who had shown suicidal tendencies managed to kill himself, nor, conversely, that a man could be killed behind bars. Barr and his DOJ (like previous DOJ officials) knew MCC was structured on “irregularities.” So did U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, and his predecessor, Preet Bharara. So did the judges of the Southern District of New York. The federal prison system is replete with “irregularities.”

The real scandal is that the horrors of MCC have existed for decades, hidden in plain sight. The journalist Aviva Stahl published a searing exposé last year in Gothamist on conditions at MCC that documented the filth, rodents, overflowing sewage, deeply substandard medical care, wrenching isolation, and often indifferent—and at times, cruel—staff. From reports from lawyers and people imprisoned there, to the legal motions they have filed attempting to mitigate the inhumane conditions, to the hundreds of administrative remedies prisoners have filled out to request remediation (the first step prisoners must take to document problems with their conditions), to the research of scholars and human-rights organizations, the abusive and corrupt conditions at MCC are well documented.

But a broad swath of public officials, from the attorney general on down, have chosen to countenance these conditions—and major news organizations haven’t pressed the issue. As attention finally came to the despicable conditions at Rikers, few journalists looked across the river to MCC. Perhaps many labored under the misapprehension that while state and local (and private) jails might be mismanaged, abusive, and decrepit, the federal government runs a largely rights-respecting, clean operation. On top of this, the federal government—and the Bureau of Prisons in particular—makes it supremely difficult to investigate its prisons and jails, constantly throwing up justifications for denying access to the materials researchers want (“too burdensome,” “ national security,” “privacy,” “internal agency workings”) and shrouding their practices in secrecy .

When news about MCC reaches the public, it typically comes in sensational stories about alleged mega-criminals such as Epstein, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, or Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman being held there—the crimes with which they are charged completely obscuring the jail itself. Moreover, while Americans broadly profess to oppose torture and cruelty, there’s a tendency to look away from (or even take some glee in) the abusive conditions facing incarcerated people, particularly those who are publicly reviled.

I don’t know why the overwhelming majority of journalists I talked with over the years never published serious investigations into MCC. Perhaps racialized assumptions played a role, separating victims of government abuse whose situations seemed urgent and worthy of months of painstaking research from those who are assumed to pose exceptional danger and thus perhaps deserve extreme measures. I was highlighting the inhumane conditions that largely unknown Muslims facing terrorism charges were experiencing at MCC. Now they are calling me about the über-rich, white Jeffrey Epstein.

Or perhaps it was the simple incongruity of the U.S. government running a high-rise dungeon in Manhattan’s financial district, which featured conditions more commonly associated with the jails of foreign dictatorships. The descriptions of the dirty, decrepit, vermin-infested, hyper-isolating jail sitting in an elite zip code never seemed to stick.

The public attention to Epstein’s suicide could change that—but only if the public resists the seductive scandal of it all and insists on seeing the structural problems that Epstein’s time at MCC exposes.

First the basics: MCC is a pretrial federal facility run by the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Department of Justice and overseen by Congress, that holds people awaiting trial on charges in the Southern District of New York. This means that the people it holds are presumed innocent, and the law ostensibly prohibits their punishment before conviction. Opened in 1975, MCC today houses about 750 people in a facility built for fewer than 500. The conditions of their confinement vary widely, depending on where they are held, from the general population to the Special Housing Unit on the ninth floor to the fearsome 10 South wing. The SHU is for people the jail deems not safe in general population or who have allegedly broken jail rules; it features much more restrictive conditions, including solitary confinement. Epstein began in the general population, but was reportedly in the SHU on 9 South when he died.

Lawyers and people held there awaiting trial regularly report appalling conditions. The temperature is not adequately regulated; the facility is often sweltering in the summer and so cold in the winter that prisoners report having trouble thinking and wearing layers of clothes to be able to sleep. A single psychiatrist serves both MCC and the Metropolitan Detention Center, another federal facility located in Brooklyn. People report being “treated” through the slat in their cell door. The facility is run-down, and the plumbing and elevators break often.

The most inhumane section of MCC is 10 South. The majority of the people held there over the past two decades have been Muslims facing terrorism charges; Guzman was held there as well. No outdoor recreation is allowed for 10 South prisoners, and windows are frosted so they are cut off from natural air and light. Besides the filth and vermin (even cell-cleaning supplies are often denied), one chief complaint is the lack of ventilation. On 10 South, prisoners are alone in their cells almost all of the time; they even shower there. Their sole escape is the hour when they are moved to a solitary cage for exercise. Sometimes, that recreation is denied, leaving prisoners to go days without leaving their cells. Cells are electronically surveilled, so that every action—including using the toilet, showering, and talking—is monitored.

The defense attorney Robert Boyle has described the conditions at MCC as producing “a continuing deterioration in his [client’s] health,” and has noted reports from other lawyers with clients in similar conditions as “unable to make rational decisions in relation to the trial they face.”

Nearly all of the people held on 10 South are under special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed by the attorney general, which restrict their communication with the outside world. On 10 South, you can be punished for yelling through the walls, for saying “As-Salaam Alaikum” to another prisoner, for making the call to prayer. While some talk between prisoners through walls or doors is not punished, there is always the threat of punishment, and sometimes guards exercise their prerogative to do so. Prisoners report going months without any talking—all before they have been convicted of any crime.

The SAMs also mean that anyone in contact with the prisoner, a list typically restricted to a lawyer and the prisoner’s immediate family, is forbidden from communicating anything heard from the detainee. Put another way, lawyers or family members can be punished for disclosing any specifics of the conditions they hear the prisoner is facing.  

The British civil-rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, who has spent decades defending Irish and Muslim prisoners accused of terrorism, visited MCC after clients she was representing were extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. No stranger to prison abuses, Peirce was astonished by the conditions at MCC. “Diabolical” was how she described it.

According to studies, rates of suicide in jail are higher than in prison. And Epstein had reportedly already made one attempt to take his own life. While MCC is a special breed of hell, its approach to mental health is indicative of the BOP’s broad, cruel indifference to mental-health care. Faced with a spate of suicides in 2012, for instance, the BOP director sent every prisoner in federal custody an absurd letter. “At times you may feel hopeless about your future, and your thought may turn to suicide,” Director Charles E. Samuels wrote. “If you are unable to think of solutions other than suicide, it is not because solutions do not exist; it is because you are currently unable to see them. Do not lose hope.”

International organizations have condemned MCC’s conditions. From 2007 to 2012, the European Court for Human Rights stayed the extradition of six U.K. subjects, concerned about inhumane prison conditions at U.S. federal facilities like MCC and the nation’s supermax prison in Colorado, before finally capitulating to U.S. pressure in 2012. Amnesty International in 2014 decried the conditions at MCC, as has the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez; so, too, did an extensive 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute.

The question now is whether MCC will merely serve as the dirty backdrop to bizarre conspiracy theories and sordid accountings of Epstein’s last hours, allowing the inhumanity to remain hidden in plain sight—or whether Epstein’s death is going to finally force us to see what is going on in Lower Manhattan and insist that conditions at MCC finally be addressed.

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