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.”
Ken White: Thirty-two short stories about death in prison
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.