NEW YORK — Jeffrey Epstein, inmate 76318-054, hated his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It was cramped, dank, and infested with vermin, so Epstein, long accustomed to using his wealth to play by his own rules, devised a way out.
He paid numerous lawyers to visit the jail for as many as 12 hours a day, giving him the right to see them in a private meeting room. Epstein was there for so long that he often appeared bored, sitting in silence with his lawyers, according to people who saw the meetings. While they were there, he and his entourage regularly emptied the two vending machines of drinks and snacks.
“It was shift work, all designed by someone who had infinite resources to try and get as much comfort as possible,” said a lawyer who was often in the jail visiting clients.
Epstein also mounted a strategy to avoid being preyed upon by other inmates: He deposited money in their commissary accounts, according to a consultant who is often in the jail and speaks regularly with inmates there.
The jail was a sharp departure from his formerly gilded life, which had included a private island in the Caribbean, a $56 million Manhattan mansion, and a network of rich and powerful friends.
But in his final days, Epstein’s efforts to lessen the misery of incarceration seemed to be faltering.
He was seldom bathing, his hair and beard were unkempt, and he was sleeping on the floor of his cell instead of on his bunk bed, according to people at the jail.
Still, he convinced the jail’s leadership that he was not a threat to himself, even though an inquiry was already underway into whether he had tried to commit suicide on July 23. The federal jail was so poorly managed and chronically short-staffed that workers who were not correctional officers were regularly pressed into guard duty.
On Aug. 9, lawyers crowded into the plastic chairs in the meeting room with Epstein as the world was riveted by news that a court had released a cache of previously sealed documents, providing disturbing details about the sex trafficking accusations against him.
A few hours later, on the overnight shift, only 18 workers were guarding a jail with roughly 750 inmates, according to records released by the Bureau of Prisons. Ten of the workers were on overtime.
One post was actually vacant, the records show.
On 9 South, the special unit where Epstein was housed, there were two guards, one of whom was a former correctional officer who had volunteered for duty.
The two guards were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes, but failed to do so for about three hours. At some point, the guards fell asleep, according to two Bureau of Prisons officials.
By the next morning, Epstein, 66, was dead. At 6:30 a.m., at least one of the guards discovered him in his cell, where he had hanged himself with a bedsheet, a prison official and a law enforcement official said.
It is impossible to know why a person takes his own life. But an examination of Epstein’s last days by The New York Times, gathered from dozens of interviews with law enforcement officials, Bureau of Prisons employees, lawyers, and others, suggests that Epstein’s death came after he started to realize the limits of his ability to deploy his wealth and privilege in the legal system.
The people who described their interactions with Epstein and the conditions in the jail almost all spoke only on condition of anonymity, in large part because Epstein’s death is now the subject of at least two major federal inquiries into the failure to closely monitor such a high-profile prisoner.
Epstein feared life behind bars, according to people who knew him.
A few years ago, on the second floor of his Upper East Side mansion, he had a mural painted that shows a photorealistic prison scene, with barbed wire, correction officers, and a guard station. Epstein himself is portrayed in the middle, and he told a visitor earlier this year that he wanted the mural to remind him of what could await him if he was not careful.
Epstein had successfully used his wealth to skirt punitive conditions in his 2008 brush with authorities in Florida, when his team of elite lawyers negotiated a much-criticized deal with federal prosecutors to allow him to plead guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution. In return, Epstein was shielded from federal sex-trafficking charges.
He served 13 months at the Palm Beach County stockade and was allowed to leave custody and work out of an office six days a week.
But this time was different.
After Epstein was arrested July 6 on a new federal indictment, he ended up in a cell in the special housing unit in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a rust-colored fortress in lower Manhattan where many of the inmates are awaiting trial on federal charges.
The staffing problems at the jail are emblematic of a larger shortage of correctional officers in federal jails and prisons across the country.
These facilities have been dealing with rising levels of violence and other safety problems as the Trump administration has curtailed hiring in its quest to shrink the government, according to an investigation by The New York Times last year.
Some prisons have been so pressed for guards that they have forced teachers, nurses, cooks, and other support staff to step in. That can lead to security risks because the substitute workers are often less familiar with the inmate population than the regular guards and can miss cues indicating that trouble is brewing, the Times investigation found.
The wing where Epstein was housed, 9 South, is the less restrictive of the jail’s two most secure units, holding dozens of inmates, usually in groups of two in small cells.
There, he was allowed one hour of recreation per day and could shower every two to three days, according to prison officials. Aside from meetings with lawyers, his contact with the outside world was severely limited.
The wing is infested with rodents and cockroaches, and inmates often have to navigate standing water — as well as urine and fecal matter — that spills from faulty plumbing, accounts from former inmates and lawyers said.
One lawyer said mice often eat his clients’ papers.
Epstein tried desperately to ingratiate himself with fellow inmates, the consultant who had spoken with inmates said. He had heard from two inmates that Epstein transferred money into at least three other inmates’ commissary accounts — an exercise often used in the jail to buy protection.
It was clear early on that Epstein was desperate to leave 9 South.
After his arrest, he asked a judge to release him on a substantial bond, pledging to put up his Manhattan mansion and his jet as collateral. He would hire round-the-clock security guards, he said, who would “virtually guarantee” that he would not flee.
The judge denied the request July 18, and Epstein stayed in 9 South.
Five days later, Epstein was found unconscious in his cell, with marks on his neck.
His cellmate, Nicholas Tartaglione, a former suburban New York police officer accused of a quadruple homicide, summoned guards, and Epstein was revived, according to Tartaglione’s lawyer, Bruce Barket.
Prison officials investigated the incident as a suicide attempt, and Epstein was placed in the jail’s suicide prevention program.
Some workers and inmates were skeptical, according to prison officials and people who spoke with inmates in the wing. They questioned whether Epstein was faking his injury to gain sympathy from Judge Richard M. Berman, who was presiding over his case.
The jail’s warden, Lamine N’Diaye, told Berman in a letter that the jail conducted an internal investigation into the July 23 incident, but did not say what the outcome of that investigation was. (N’Diaye was transferred out of the jail on Tuesday pending the investigation into Epstein’s death.)
The few comforts Epstein once had in 9 South disappeared on suicide watch.
Inmates there are housed alone in solitary rooms, naked except for a thick, heavy smock. Lights can be dimmed, but never turned off, and there are no bedsheets or materials that could be used for self-harm.
Six days later, July 29, he was taken off suicide watch and returned to 9 South.
In the wake of his death, the decision by the jail’s leadership to end the suicide watch has sparked criticism from elected officials and some mental health professionals.
But six current and former prison officials said it was not uncommon for an inmate to be taken off suicide watch after only a few days.
Epstein’s own lawyers believed that he was fine and lobbied to have him taken off suicide watch, according to someone familiar with the negotiations.
Three days after Epstein was formally removed from the 24-hour suicide watch, he received a visit from David Schoen, a lawyer whom he had consulted periodically over more than a decade.
Schoen said Epstein had sought the meeting through another lawyer and indicated to Schoen that he wanted him to join his legal team.
They conferred in the meeting room for roughly five hours, talking about legal issues and the case.
At one point, a therapist at the jail stopped by and asked Schoen to leave the room because she had to meet privately with Epstein.
When the session was finished, Schoen said he joked with Epstein and the therapist about how short it had been.
Schoen said that by the time the meeting ended, Epstein seemed excited about their working together on the case.
“One thing I can say for sure is when I left him he was very, very upbeat,” said Schoen, who never had the chance to join the team.
The official autopsy results, announced by the medical examiner Friday, showed that the cause of death was suicide by hanging.
The medical examiner’s findings did not placate Epstein’s lawyers.
“The defense team fully intends to conduct its own independent and complete investigation into the circumstances and cause of Mr. Epstein’s death,” they said in a statement. “We are not satisfied with the conclusions of the medical examiner.”