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By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
If you work or have worked in corrections, you have likely dealt or are familiar with prisoners who have attempted suicide or completed the act before officers, staff, or even fellow prisoners could intervene. During my 16-year career in corrections, a number of prisoners committed suicide despite all the precautionary measures in place to prevent it. In some instances, there were no signs or indications of suicidal behavior, but at other times, it was due to some degree of negligence by the prison. Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide would fit in the latter category of negligence based on the information that has been presented to the media.
For one, I am curious to know why Epstein was released from suicide watch less than three weeks after a prior attempted suicide. And two, as asked by corrections expert and author Gary York, how did a high-profile inmate such as Epstein go without a 24/7 camera watch if officer overtime was an issue as has been claimed? Officer overtime, whether it be mandated or otherwise, is a constant concern in most of our nation’s jails and prisons. However, more than anything, overtime is an administrative issue and security must always take precedence.
[Related: Mandatory Overtime Comes with Physical and Financial Overtime]
Epstein’s alleged suicide was likely one of the contributing factors that led to US Attorney General Barr removing the acting director of the federal bureau of prisons from that position on August 19, 2019. I say “alleged” because there are still some unanswered questions and the investigation into Epstein’s death and whether there was a breach in prison protocol is still ongoing. Therefore, I can only comment on what is currently known.
Did Epstein Commit Suicide?
According to author, speaker, and law enforcement officer Keith Hellwig, the suicide and death of Jeffrey Epstein is no more tragic than that of any other inmate. However, because of his notoriety, the investigation will reveal the consequences of complacency on the prison’s part.
On August 16, 2019, the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined the cause of Epstein’s death as suicide by hanging. Multiple breaks in Epstein’s neck bones were consistent with a hanging even though some have speculated that the break in the hyoid bone, which in men is the one nearest to the “Adam’s apple,” is often associated with strangulation.
While homicide is plausible, especially when one is incarcerated, my intuition is telling me that there is no larger conspiracy at work. An “inside job” that frames Epstein’s homicide as a hanging sounds like the perfect storyline for a novel, but it is likely only fueled by the notoriety surrounding Epstein’s alleged associations with the rich and powerful. We have seen such theories arise around the Kennedy assassination and the supposed “cover up” deaths of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jim Morrison, to name a few.
While Epstein’s attorneys are unsatisfied with the medical examiner’s autopsy finding, which is not surprising, officer complacency in failing to follow protocol is far more probable than an inside job.
Why Prisoners Commit Suicide?
Despite our well-intended efforts as a profession, there have always been and likely always will be occurrences of prisoner suicide. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoner suicide rates are far higher than the national average, and even higher still in special populations such as those who identify as LGBTQ or are mentally ill. This is not necessarily new or surprising information. What’s certain is mental health issues, including suicidal ideations, will worsen when incarcerated.
[Related: What Andrew Holland’s Death Reveals About Caring for Mentally Ill Inmates]
When sentenced, awaiting sentencing, or preparing for the uncertain outcome of a criminal trial, one must face the reality of doing time and for Epstein, significant time. There is the real possibility of never being released. Then, factor in the humiliation, shame, and guilt associated with being accused of sexual crimes involving children. Not only is his reputation and image shattered, but even other prisoners have a deep disdain for child sexual offenders.
First-time prisoners often experience the shock of confinement whereby they are stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy. Many commit suicide before they have been convicted; the rate of suicide in those awaiting conviction is seven times higher than for convicted inmates, according to The Marshall Project.
What Is Suicide Watch?
Many correctional institutions have suicide watch to monitor suicidal prisoners, which consists of a series of levels. These prisoners might receive constant supervision or five to fifteen minute periods of observation every 30 minutes, under standard prison protocol. Officers assigned to “do rounds” must log those rounds and describe the offender’s activities (sleeping, watching TV, reading, etc.). It is also best to not leave a suicidal inmate or one who has had suicidal ideations without a cellmate. It is just another precaution because, in my experience, even the most heinous and vile offenders will alert prison staff if their cellmate is attempting suicide.
Preliminary reports indicate that the two officers who were responsible for monitoring Epstein did not do so. Most recently, it is also alleged that one of the officers did not have adequate experience or training working in that capacity. The reports indicate that officers did not check on Epstein for three hours—whether this was deliberate because he had been taken off suicide watch, simple complacency, or neglect of one’s duties will be fleshed out in the investigation. The officers must be disciplined if it has been determined they falsified records in which they were to observe Epstein, according to Anthony Gangi, host of Tier Talk and prison administrator.
Why Was Epstein Taken Off Suicide Watch?
Essentially, any prison employee can place a prisoner on suicide watch. Maybe it was a change in the prisoner’s demeanor, something he or she said, or the fact that they were just sentenced and the reality of not going home is quickly setting in. However, only a medical professional, typically a psychiatrist, can release someone from suicide watch or lower the level of observation. This, to me, is where there is a breakdown of standard prison protocol.
Common sense dictates that when questioned by a psychiatrist, a prisoner can simply lie and say that everything is fine now. This is what I suspect happens all the time. During my time in corrections, I sent a number of prisoners to psychiatric facilities for further evaluation after they attempted suicide. The psychiatric facility has 72 hours to evaluate prisoners and nearly 100 percent of the time, they were returned to the prison after that time had elapsed and deemed no longer a suicide threat.
This raises the question: how does one go from being suicidal one day, then three days later, they are not? This is a rhetorical question I have posed for 30 years. Particularly in Epstein’s case, I have a difficult time accepting that he was released from suicide watch after a recent suicide attempt and mounting criminal evidence that would be used in his criminal trial.
My colleagues and I (Anthony Gangi, Gary York, and Keith Hellwig) will continue to closely monitor the investigation and update, amend, or delete unfounded information as new details emerge from the investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s death.
About the Author: Michael Pittaro is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
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