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Horror at MCC: “Gulag” Conditions at NYC Jail Were Known for Decades Before Jeffrey Epstein’s Death

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Questions are mounting surrounding accused serial sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged suicide in his New York jail cell over the weekend. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell on Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, in Manhattan, where authorities say he hanged himself. The warden at MCC has since been reassigned, and two guards who were tasked with monitoring Epstein were put on leave. Reports emerged Tuesday that the guards may have been asleep during their shift, failing to check on Epstein for hours and then falsifying time logs. MCC, which has housed many high-profile prisoners, has been plagued with reports of understaffing, overcrowding and dire conditions for years. Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán called the prison “psychological torture.” A United Nations human rights expert as well as Amnesty International have also condemned conditions in parts of the jail, saying they are akin to torture and result in “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” We speak with Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College who has written extensively on the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Her latest book is titled “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New questions are being raised about the death of Jeffrey Epstein after an autopsy found the accused sex trafficker had multiple breaks in his neck bones, including his hyoid bone, this according to a report in The Washington Post. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell on Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. Authorities had said Epstein had hanged himself. The president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, Jonathan Arden, who was not involved in Epstein’s autopsy, told the Post, quote, “If, hypothetically, the hyoid bone is broken, that would generally raise questions about strangulation, but it is not definitive and does not exclude suicidal hanging,” he said.

Many conspiracy theories have circulated about Epstein’s death, in part due to his close connections to many well-connected people, including President Trump and former President Bill Clinton. Epstein’s death came less than 24 hours after hundreds of pages of court documents were unsealed with testimonies from former employees and new details of sexual abuse committed by Epstein.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey Epstein’s death has brought new attention to the staffing and conditions at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC. Reports emerged Tuesday Epstein’s guards may have been sleeping during their shift, failing to check on Epstein for three hours and then falsifying time logs. They were supposed to check on him every 30 minutes. Epstein had been on suicide watch last month but was then removed. The warden at the MCC has since been reassigned, and two guards who were tasked with monitoring Epstein were put on leave, although it’s believed that one of those people was not even a guard.

We’re joined now by Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College who has written about the MCC, Metropolitan Correctional Center. Her latest book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

Jeanne, welcome back to Democracy Now!

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, here you have an extremely wealthy, white, high-profile prisoner who dies at MCC. Well, this is not the first time someone has died there. But, most significantly, as the description of this jail started coming out, and the expressions of horror from around the country — how is this possible? — you have been sounding the alarm bells for quite some time. Tell us about what you might call Barr’s bars, right? This is the Attorney General William Barr’s jail.


AMY GOODMAN: This is the jail that is not run by the city of New York, but by the Justice Department.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. So, to clarify — right? — MCC is a federal pretrial facility. It holds people awaiting trial in the Southern District of New York. It is run, as you said, by the Bureau of Prisons, that is underneath the Department of Justice.

Conditions at MCC have been horrifying for years. And in fact, my very first time on Democracy Now! a decade ago, we talked about conditions at MCC then. As we talked about then, as journalist Aviva Stahl wrote about in a searing exposé last year, conditions there are dirty. The facility is decrepit. It’s vermin-infested. Things break. So, sometimes elevators break, and lawyers can’t visit their clients. Stahl reported how often the sewage system breaks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In that piece itself, you in fact refer to the facility as a “gulag.”

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. I mean, in many ways, it is hard, and I think it has been hard for people to wrap their heads around a federal jail in Lower Manhattan, on Wall Street — right? — with conditions that seem akin to a Third World dictatorship. Right? Dirty, too hot and too cold, fruit flies, mice, extreme isolation in parts of MCC. Conditions vary in the facility. Reportedly, Jeffrey Epstein had been moved to the special housing unit on 9 South, where —

AMY GOODMAN: It’s essentially solitary confinement.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. And so, again, just to remember, these are pretrial facilities. People are being held in solitary confinement before any conviction, before any trial. And, you know, most international bodies consider sort of extended solitary confinement a form of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just on Jeffrey Epstein, already in July, there was a report that he had attempted suicide, or his cellmate had tried to kill him or attack him. We still don’t even know what happened there, but that’s when he was put on suicide watch. And then, apparently, a psychologist said he can go off it. But even then, after coming off suicide watch, you’re supposed to be in a cell with another prisoner, with eyes on at least — what? — every half hour. And how is it possible that this happened with him there, that he was alone for hours on end?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: For those of us who have studied kind of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is not unusual. The kind of lack of mental healthcare, the kinds of conditions that we’ve found, we’ve now heard about with Mr. Epstein. Insufficient mental healthcare. So, for instance, there is only one psychiatrist that serves both MCC and the sister facility in Brooklyn called the Metropolitan Detention Center, that we had heard about this winter. One psychiatrist.

AMY GOODMAN: That was freezing.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: That was freezing. People, again, report that oftentimes you’re treated through your cell’s slat. You’re not even face to face.

That he was put in solitary confinement after perhaps trying to kill himself is not — it should be rare. It should not be happening. But it’s not surprising in terms of the way that the Federal Bureau of Prisons often — like, what happens in these federal facilities and the kind of lack of sustained, serious sort of attention to people who might be showing suicidal tendencies, who might be having mental health issues.

Studies show that suicide is higher in jails than in prisons. There have certainly been suicides in federal facilities, so much so that in 2012, in an absurd turn of events, the director of prisons, after a spate of suicides in federal facilities, wrote a letter to every inmate telling them not to lose hope. Again, an absurd way to deal with mental healthcare in the federal system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you comment on the fact that often suicide watch is carried out — the people who monitor people who are prisoners who are — or people who are detained who are suicidal are often inmates, not even prison guards?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Well, also, what happened to Epstein, as they are reporting, is that he was put in solitary confinement. And there is something that should be, like, counterintuitive and counterproductive of putting someone who is having mental health issues in solitary confinement. And yet that is often what happens.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you speak specifically — you said a little about this, but of this area, 9 South and 10 South, which is reportedly worse than 9 South? How are conditions there different from the rest of the facility of MCC?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, 9 South — and then 10 South is even more isolating — it’s solitary confinement. There is a recreation facility on the roof that some inmates can access at MCC, but often people in 9 South, and definitely people in 10 South, are not allowed up there.

So, much of my work has been about researching 10 South. Ten South, the isolation is extraordinary. There’s a shower in your cell, so you shower in your cell. You might have an hour of recreation in a solitary cage, but you never go outside. You are often — they often cancel recreation, so you can go days without leaving your cell. There’s a camera on you all the time — when you shower, when you go to the bathroom — on 10 South, so you’re being watched constantly. There’s a light on all the time. The isolation up there — and people are often held there for years.

But we haven’t taken this seriously. While this is coming as a surprise to the general public, people held at MCC have filed legal motions for years talking about these conditions. They’ve filed administration remedies for years. The DOJ knew. U.S. attorneys knew. Judges in the Southern District of New York knew. And either they turned the other way, or they allowed it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, you’ve been trying to raise this with the media, for instance, for years.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was the response? Why didn’t people cover this, despite all these legal cases?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, one of the absurd things about the past 72 hours is, no fewer than 20 different news organizations, many of the sort of most major news organizations in this country, have emailed and tweeted at me, “Urgent: Can we talk to you? Will you come on?” A number of those organizations, I had sat down with five years ago, seven years ago, nine years ago, saying, “There is a crisis in Lower Manhattan.” When attention turned, thankfully, to conditions at Rikers, I talked to journalists, saying, “We need to look across the river also at MCC.” And again, people looked the other way, or people tried to research — getting information out of the Federal Bureau of Prisons is extremely difficult. They make it —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you could hear, absolutely, even this weekend, when they were trying to figure out what happened to Jeffrey Epstein, they would say, “We’ll be able to see the video,” and then it turned out there are no videos on the cells, and then they said there are no videos. Was he on suicide watch? No one could figure that out.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And then, when you’re trying to do kind of a broader pattern there, and you say, “OK, we’d like to see administrative remedies from a number of prisoners,” you know, often they’re like, “National security,” or “That’s too many. You need to narrow your scope,” or “Privacy issues,” or “This is internal workings of, like, a government agency,” you know, so, again and again, making it extremely difficult to get information.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, El Chapo, who was also held there, said, It has been physical, emotional and mental torture.”


AMY GOODMAN: The Muslim prisoners, who have been represented there — we’ve interviewed Gareth Peirce a number of times. Describe what she says about what people are saying are in this prison.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, a handful of years ago, after a long battle in the European Court of Human Rights — for five years the European Court of Human Rights held extradition to the United States because of conditions both at places like MCC and ADX. Finally, they bowed to U.S. pressure in 2012 and agreed to extradite these six men. Gareth Peirce, legendary civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, comes over to meet with some of some of the men who were her clients. And I saw her after she made that first trip to MCC, and she called it “diabolical.” Now, as we know, Gareth Peirce has been representing people for decades. She is no stranger to prison abuse. She is no stranger to the carceral conditions of people considered, you know, political enemies or reviled people.

AMY GOODMAN: People represented at Guantánamo.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: And yet, what she saw at MCC astounded her — right? — the level of isolation, the level of uncleanliness and filth, the level of making it almost impossible to adequately represent the person, your client, both in terms of — so, on 10 South, you can’t have contact visits. Anything — many of the men on 10 South are covered by special administrative measures. SAMs restrict a prisoner’s communication to the outside world, but it also restricts lawyers and immediate family members. So you’re not allowed to say anything. If the prisoner that you are representing or visiting is under a SAM, you are not allowed to say anything that they told you. So, to put it another way, if you think something horrible is happening, you risk being punished yourself by saying, “My client said this is happening to him.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what kinds of prisoners? I mean, they’re usually, what’s extraordinary about this place, such high-profile people. Amy just mentioned El Chapo, but also Bernie Madoff and others. What determines — and, of course, Jeffrey Epstein himself. Why are such high-profile people — I’m sure there are others — held in 9 South or 10 South?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, people are held at MCC because they’re being prosecuted by the Southern District of New York. And then, the more dangerous the prisoner, the more kind of extreme the conditions get at MCC. So, again, on 10 South, El Chapo was held on 10 South, a number of Muslims facing terrorism charges, some of whom are familiar names but many of whom are not familiar names. Epstein was not held on 10 South. I want to repeat that. And allegedly, he was found — when he was found in his cell, he was being held, reports say, in 9 South in a special housing unit. Again, that typically means solitary confinement. But part of the high-profile nature of who is being held there is due to the fact that the case is being brought by the Southern District of New York.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think, Professor Theoharis, happened to Jeffrey Epstein?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: I don’t know. What I hope will come out of this is, finally, attention to the conditions there at MCC. I think we’ve seen a media spectacle in the past few days and all this interest at MCC. But I guess my question is: Is this really going to shine a light on what’s happening there, or is this part of the kind of salaciousness of this story? So, we’re kind of titillated by the details at MCC, but then we’re going to sort of let it continue, or are we going to — and again, I think we can see what finally the attention brought to bear on Rikers finally led to some — both changes there and, hopefully, more changes ahead. Will that happen —

AMY GOODMAN: Will call for the closing of Rikers.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right, the call — right. And hopefully that’s going to happen. Similar kinds of light needs to be shone at MCC. It is not clear to me, despite, again, all the attention this week to MCC, but what I very much hope, what many civil rights advocates and lawyers who have been trying to sound the alarm about MCC for years hope, is that this will finally force us to see what is happening in this high-rise dungeon in Lower Manhattan.

AMY GOODMAN: Right next to Wall Street, interestingly.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right next to Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us. Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, has written extensively about MCC. That’s the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Her latest book is titled A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

Now that Jeffrey Epstein is dead, what happens to all the cases against him? We’ll speak with attorney Lisa Bloom. Stay with us.

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