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Yvonne Abraham

Prison deaths require no dark conspiracy

An employee checked a visitor outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Jeffrey Epstein took his own life over the weekend, in New York on Tuesday.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press/Associated Press

If only it took some dark conspiracy for a federal inmate like Jeffrey Epstein — or any inmate — to kill himself while in custody.

The news that the financier and sex offender accused of abusing scores of underage girls apparently committed suicide in a New York detention facility last week set off a frenzy of wild speculation. The high-profile detainee claimed to have damaging information on powerful men of all political persuasions. President Trump, the conspiracist-in-chief who was himself a friend of Epstein, helped spread the baseless accusation that the Clintons were responsible for silencing Epstein forever.


His death must have been engineered by somebody, proclaimed the Twitter sleuths. Otherwise, how could Epstein, who had already attempted suicide once, have died?

All too easily, comes the reply from anybody who has spent time working in this country’s prisons, and especially its jails. There, inmates die all too often, not from some nefarious scheme, but of neglect — intentional and otherwise.

Mundane factors like understaffing, indifference, and lousy training can be deadly in their own way. The pretrial detention facility in which Epstein was held was well known for its overcrowded, inhumane conditions, including grave medical neglect. It was one of many federal prisons which were so chronically understaffed that teachers and secretaries were pressed into service as correctional officers, according to The New York Times.

One such substitute was tasked with guarding Epstein, who had been taken off suicide watch, on the night he died. Another officer was working his fifth straight overtime shift. Neither checked on Epstein for a three-hour period, even though they should have been looking in on him every 30 minutes. After they discovered he had hanged himself, they reportedly falsified records to cover up their inattention.


It’s a familiar scenario to advocates like Leslie Walker of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. According to the New England Center for Investigative reporting, four inmates killed themselves in this state’s prisons in 2018, and three committed suicide in county jails. Over the years, Walker and her colleagues have seen plenty of cases where inmates have committed suicide after corrections officers have skipped rounds.

“It’s not infrequent to have the logs tampered with, or not filled out, or the log books look fine but the cameras reveal an officer has never left his or her desk,” she said. Prisoners can figure out pretty quickly if and when they’ll have an opportunity to take their own lives.

She worries that the attorney general’s investigation of a prison he himself oversees will end with the firing of the corrections officers who failed to do their jobs, and nothing more.

“Heads will roll, problem solved,” Walker said. “It’s a very quick and dirty way to make sure a systemic problem is not brought to light.”

Nothing trains the attention of an indifferent public on the shortcomings of our prisons like the death of an infamous inmate: Epstein; or former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who killed himself at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley in 2017; or James “Whitey” Bulger, who was murdered last year after being transferred to a notoriously violent federal facility in West Virginia.


Likewise, few ordinary people were focused on the abysmal state of prison medical care until the revelation that former House speaker Sal DiMasi’s cancer went undiagnosed for six months as he served a federal corruption sentence.

Still, infamy only goes so far: DiMasi’s trials clearly did little to improve conditions in federal prisons. And it’s unlikely the death of the detestable Epstein will do much to change them either.

What ails our corrections system is too mundane, too difficult to fix, to hold our attention for long — especially when we could enjoy a juicy conspiracy theory instead.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.