The Real Reason Epstein Died Is a Lot Scarier Than Murder

You don't need a vast conspiracy to explain Epstein's death. Just look to conditions for inmates in federal jails.

When the news first broke yesterday that noted child rapist Jeffrey Epstein had died by suicide in jail, I went through a lot of emotions. It started with anger, knowing that he will never be held accountable for his crimes and his many victims will never be able to get closure. Soon my anger turned into worry that his death may end many of the investigations into his dealings and those of the people around him who enabled or even benefited from his crimes. Finally, I was filled with confusion over how this possibly could have happened. Supposedly Epstein was on suicide watch, so if precautions were being taken to prevent him from being able to die by suicide, how was able to succeed at it?

Very soon after his death was announced I logged into Facebook and Twitter and saw many people alleging that Epstein was likely murdered. I’m not talking about right-wing conspiracy theorists like our own president who is alleging Epstein was killed by Hillary Clinton (though that happened as well), but progressive friends of mine. Most of these friends are not the type of people to usually buy into a conspiracy theory, but they pointed to the long list of powerful people who would want Epstein dead and explained how suspicious it was that Epstein would have been able to die by suicide while on suicide watch.

After awhile, I started to believe too. When news later came out saying that he wasn’t actually on suicide watch, I wondered if maybe he had been purposefully taken off it in order to encourage him to die by suicide. If contradictory information is coming out of the jail, how do we even know their suicide claims are true at all? Maybe he was actually killed by a guard or inmate. Certainly the timing of his death seems convenient for many of his friends and confidants whose own crimes may have come out in the investigation against Epstein.

Although I’ve been surprised to see people who usually don’t espouse conspiracy theories dabble in them in this case, myself included, I do think there is something in particular about Epstein that causes conspiracy theories to swirl around him. The fact is, Epstein is at the center of an honest-to-god real-life conspiracy. He truly was running a sex trafficking ring with some of the most powerful people in the world as his possible conspirators, many of whom have gone to great lengths to protect him. There are also still a lot of questions over where he was getting his money from, who his clients were, and what he was actually doing for them. There is even some evidence pointing to a potential blackmail scheme, suggesting he was taping his rich, powerful friends interactions with his underage sex slaves then blackmailing them into investing with his “hedge fund” that was actually just a index fund that he used to launder his blackmail money.

With all this actual conspiracy going on, it doesn’t seem that much of a jump to go from what we already know or suspect about Epstein’s dealings and who it may have involved to murder. After all, jails are dangerous places where inmates do sometimes get murdered, even high-profile inmates. Not to mention that many of Epstein’s conspirators have already attempted and succeeded (at least for awhile) at coverup campaigns to hide Epstein’s crimes. Could these same conspirators have ordered Epstein’s death and now be covering it up by claiming it’s suicide? It’s certainly not impossible.

Over at the New York Times, they are reporting that Epstein had been taken off of suicide watch. He was supposed to be sharing a cell with an inmate, but the inmate that had been housed with him had been transferred out. Additionally, Epstein was supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes, but the corrections officers that were working the night of his death were not checking in on him as they were supposed to. This all could point to a conspiracy if you are looking for one. Why was Epstein taken off suicide watch? Why was his cell-mate transferred? Why did the guards not check on him? Could someone have ordered all these things in order to either create conditions for Epstein to die by suicide or perhaps even to set up a situation where an assassin could have murdered him? As I said earlier, it’s not impossible.

But, it is unlikely. The truth is that the Metropolitan Correction Center where Epstein was being held, like other federal jails, has suffered from decades of budget shortfalls and understaffing. The night that Epstein died, the two corrections officers that were on staff were both working overtime hours, and for one of the officers, it was his fifth night in a row working overtime. In terms of conditions at the jail, Slate writes that “in the Special Housing Unit where Epstein was held, the fluorescent lights are kept on 23 or 24 hours a day, prisoners are prohibited from calling out to each other, and the cell windows are frosted to prevent any glimpse of the outside world,” conditions that can often lead to mental illness and suicidal tendencies. They also point out that even though mental illness and suicide is extremely common in jails, at MCC there was only one psychiatrist on staff for both MCC and another local jail, a population of 2000 prisoners.

In a way, I think I want to believe Epstein was murdered because it’s a tidy end to the story of Epstein. It’s easy to believe that Epstein, by dealing with experts at crimes and coverups, ended up as the victim of one of those crimes and coverups. I want to believe it was murder, but the truth is much scarier.

The truth is that the MCC already had a reputation as an extremely dangerous place that was often mismanaged, creating situations that put their inmates at risk. Slate writes this about the MCC

We know that MCC, the federal prison in Manhattan that also recently housed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was deemed “worse than Guantanamo” by someone who spent time in both facilities. We know that cells are infested with bugs and rats so big they’re “more like roommates” and that the temperature swings from unbearable heat to frigid cold. We know that inmates have not received adequate medical care, that a corrections officers was found guilty of raping an inmate, and that officials allegedly tried to cover up the fatal beating of another prisoner.

It seems likely that Epstein was taken off suicide watch early because suicide watch is expensive and they need to conserve their budget. It seems likely that the inmate who was staying with Epstein was transferred out because he needed to be moved and the jail didn’t have the resources or manpower to quickly find a replacement cellmate. It seems likely that the corrections officers who were working the night of Epstein’s death were not checking on him every 30 minutes because they were overworked and tired and likely had many other inmates to check-in on every 30 minutes, along with a lot of other work to do, so doing those bi-hourly checks just fell by the wayside.

We don’t need a vast conspiracy among powerful people to explain why Epstein died. We already have the information we need to know what happened, but we don’t want to face it because it means we might have to do something about it. Epstein likely died due to suicide in a jail that didn’t have the budget or wherewithal to be able to fully protect him and provide him with mental health resources when he showed suicidal tendencies. He died because federal jails in the US are terrifying hell-holes with conditions that exacerbate mental illness then do not provide inmates the medical care they need to manage their conditions. It’s not a conspiracy so much as a total lack of regard from politicians and the taxpaying public who vote for them.

Epstein is never going to be held accountable for his crimes. His victims will never be able to face him in court. If you care about that, the answer is not to speculate about the latest conspiracies but pick up the phone and call your representatives and ask them for the funding to change the conditions for inmates in federal jails.

Post was updated on 8/12/2019 to reflect best practices in the language used when reporting on suicides. (h/t to MB on our Facebook page).

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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  1. I can’t remember ever disagreeing w a Skepchick article before. You don’t know that that’s what happened. Hell, you don’t even know that the body was his. I think we need more info to jump to conclusions about JE. The jail thing is probably right on. I’m in Manhattan now, I wonder if they would let me check it out. Maybe I could get some credentials from you and you can give me a possible itinerary. I’d love to interview the correctional officers on duty. I could get you a couple thousand words. I trust you wouldn’t care that I’m not actually a chick…

    1. Perhaps I didn’t fully clarify, but I don’t think and hope I didn’t imply that murder was off the table and I certainly do not know exactly what happened. As I mentioned in the piece, murder in jails of high profile prisoners is a real thing that happens and there are many powerful individuals who benefit from Epstein’s death that may have been able to arrange an assassination. It’s not an implausible explanation and people who believe Epstein was murdered are not being irrational in those beliefs. As I said, we’re already in real-life conspiracy-world with Epstein, so it’s not irrational to wonder how far the conspiracy goes. I just wanted to put forward that there are facts we already know about the mismanagement of the MCC that can explain all the supposedly strange things that seemed to happen around Epstein that led to his death and that this is a likelier explanation than an assassination.

      Hopefully a fair investigation will be done that will get to the bottom of what happened, but in the absence of that, it’s fair to assume that the most likely explanation is probably the truth of the matter.

      Just want to be clear that I’m not putting people who believe Epstein was murdered in the same basket as 9/11 truthers or pizzagate people. It is an actual plausible explanation, even if the likelihood of it being true is lower than other explanations.

      1. I would contend that the title of this article and sentences like “But, it is unlikely,” are fairly misleading. I fail to see how we can assign that degree of probability to this case; not the least of which being that there is a corruption scandal within the justice system running in parallel with the sex-trafficking scandal. While any of these scenarios seem possible, it’s a bit early to begin making statements with that degree of certitude.

  2. Jamie Bernstein: “It seems likely that…”

    Magus: “you don’t know”

    Yeah, genius, that’s why she wrote it the way she did. We don’t know, but we also don’t need to spin ourselves into conspiratorial knots trying to explain something that already has an obvious explanation. But this is the internet, so….

  3. Absolutely. Things are bad enough right now without jumping to conclusions about this guys suicide. Just wait and see. There’s enough fodder for real outrage without making stuff up.

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