U.S. Prisons Chief Is Reassigned After Jeffrey Epstein’s Suicide in Jail

WASHINGTON — The acting director of the Bureau of Prisons was reassigned on Monday, Attorney General William P. Barr announced, the latest fallout over the suicide of the financier Jeffrey Epstein at a chronically understaffed federal jail.

Mr. Barr has said he was “appalled” by Mr. Epstein’s death on Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he was being held on federal sex trafficking charges after years of being dogged by accusations of sexually abusing girls.

Mr. Barr announced that the bureau’s acting director, Hugh Hurwitz, was being reassigned to run its re-entry services division and to help carry out President Trump’s prison overhaul agenda. Mr. Barr named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who ran the prisons bureau from 1992 to 2003, to replace him.

The suicide of Mr. Epstein, 66, has put pressure on Mr. Barr to explain how such a high-profile defendant was left unsupervised long enough to hang himself. Guards doing morning rounds found Mr. Epstein, prison officials said, and he appeared to have tied a bedsheet to the top of a set of bunk beds, then knelt toward the floor with enough force to break bones in his neck. He had also tried to kill himself in late July, but prison workers had recommended 12 days before his death that he be removed from suicide watch.

The intense public interest in the case is also fueled by the Justice Department’s handling of an earlier sex trafficking investigation into Mr. Epstein that resulted in a nonprosecution deal, as well as by unfounded conspiracy theories about the financier’s powerful friends that blossomed in the days after he died.

Prosecutors in Manhattan said Mr. Epstein lured dozens of underage girls into giving him erotic massages and engaging in other sexual acts in the early 2000s at his mansions in Manhattan and in Palm Beach, Fla. The girls were paid hundreds of dollars in cash for the encounters and, once recruited, were asked to return several times, where they were abused again, according to court papers.

The tabloid-ready scandal has presented one of the first major challenges for Mr. Barr, one of President Trump’s most politically shrewd and influential cabinet members. Mr. Barr immediately ordered an investigation into Mr. Epstein’s death, one of four federal inquiries into the case, and has received multiple briefings a day from law enforcement officials as he has sought answers in the case, according to a Justice Department official working on the inquiry.

He has also vowed to address the shortcomings that Mr. Epstein’s death exposed at the Bureau of Prisons, which administers more than 120 facilities that hold over 177,000 inmates. The bureau, one of the Justice Department’s most troubled components, is facing congressional and department scrutiny over staffing shortages, funding issues, workplace harassment, violence and gang activity.

Although staffing shortages existed before Mr. Trump took office, a governmentwide hiring freeze imposed four days into his administration pushed the Bureau of Prisons’s employment into a downward spiral. The freeze was lifted elsewhere in April 2017, but it stayed in place at the bureau for several more months.

As of December 2016, 16,623 correctional officers worked in the Bureau of Prisons system, according to data provided by the agency. As of today, 15,012 work for the bureau, the lowest level in at least six years.

Suicides in the federal prison system have increased during the Trump administration, according to data provided by the bureau. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 27 inmates committed suicide across the system, which includes federal correctional institutions, privately contracted Bureau of Prisons correctional institutions, and community custody, like halfway houses. That is a nearly 70 percent increase from the 2016 fiscal year, when 16 inmates committed suicide.

The last inmate suicide at the Metropolitan Correction Center, before Mr. Epstein killed himself, was in 2006, according to the agency.

Leadership issues have also plagued the bureau. Mr. Hurwitz began serving as the acting director in May 2018, when the previous director, Mark Inch, resigned after less than a year at the agency.

Mr. Inch was largely seen as a casualty of a feud between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, over criminal justice reform. Mr. Inch told Justice Department officials that he felt excluded from staffing and policy decisions made by Mr. Sessions and from the drafting of criminal justice overhaul legislation overseen by Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Barr and Ms. Sawyer have a history working together: He also named her to the post in 1992 during his first stint as attorney general, when she became the first woman to run the Bureau of Prisons.

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