Bill Barr Moves from Treating Understaffing at BOP as a “SNAFU” to a “Perfect Storm of Screw-Ups”

In its annual review of management and performance challenges, DOJ’s IG listed “Managing a safe, secure, and human prison system” first among all challenges, bumped up two positions and significantly expanded from where challenges running the Bureau of Prisons occupied in that report last year.

After listing contraband — including phones like the one Joshua Schulte allegedly used to leak more CIA secrets from MCC or the one an inmate used to arrange a guard’s murder — the report then focuses on BOP’s outdated cameras, inadequate monitoring, and insufficient staffing. While all three factored in Jeffrey Epstein’s ability to kill himself, the inmate monitoring section mentions the deaths in custody of both Epstein and Whitey Bulger, while showing that those two famous prisoners were part of a trend of less notorious prisoners.

In addition to the issues relating to security cameras, the BOP also faces challenges ensuring that its correctional officers monitor inmates at required frequencies and in accordance with policies to protect inmates, including reducing the risk of inmate homicides and suicides. From FY 2015 through July 2019, the BOP has experienced 46 inmate deaths by homicide and 107 inmate deaths by suicide, including the deaths of high-profile inmates, James “Whitey” Bulger and Jeffrey Epstein. Inmate deaths by suicide in BOP facilities have increased from 8.1 per 100,000 federal inmates in FY 2016 to 14.7 per 100,000 inmates in FY 2018. The OIG is currently investigating several recent inmate homicide and suicide deaths, including those of Bulger and Epstein, to assess any systemic issues that they present, and to ensure that BOP staff are conducting consistent and appropriate monitoring of the inmates in BOP custody to ensure their physical safety.

In short, the IG identified several of the factors that contributed to Epstein’s death to be among the most urgent problems facing DOJ.

Of course, all that was not just knowable, but known, months before Epstein’s death. As I noted at the time, four months before Epstein’s death, Republican Senators Shelly Capito raised concerns about BOP staffing levels, citing several deaths in West Virginia’s Hazelton prison, where Bulger was killed. At the time, Barr brushed off Capito’s question about budget cuts by calling it a SNAFU.

In response to a question from a Republican Senator about these issues, the Attorney General admitted failure. “I think this is an area where we have stumbled.” Rather than answering Senator Capito’s question about the budget, though (again, this was an Appropriations hearing), he instead explained that the problem wasn’t budget, it’s that the BOP doesn’t have all its assigned slots full because of how it hires.

I’ve been looking into this because it’s been very frustrating to me because I’ve always supported Bureau of Prisons in the past and think it’s a great organization and if we’re going to have people incarcerated we have to make sure they’re incarcerated under proper conditions. We are  — The way I look at it our authorized level is good and adequate. It’s that we’re four to five thousand people short of our authorized level.

Barr went on to provide evidence of a systematic underlying problem. “Every year we lose 2,600 of these correctional officers.” Without considering why turnover in the BOP is so high, he instead offered this solution. “My view is we just have to turn on the spigot and just keep these new entry level people coming in at a rate where we’re going to be able to get up to and maintain our enacted level. So I think this is largely a SNAFU by the department.”

Today, the AP has an interview (conducted on a flight to Montana) with Barr, in which he tries to assure the public that Epstein really did just kill himself by explaining that he, personally, reviewed the security footage, just like he claimed to have read the Mueller Report.

The attorney general also sought to dampen conspiracy theories by people who have questioned whether Epstein really took his own life, saying the evidence proves Epstein killed himself. He added that he personally reviewed security footage that confirmed that no one entered the area where Epstein was housed on the night he died.

He calls the several known factors that contributed to Epstein’s ability to kill himself “a perfect storm of screw-ups.”

Attorney General William Barr said he initially had his own suspicions about financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death while behind bars at one of the most secure jails in America but came to conclude that his suicide was the result of “a perfect storm of screw-ups.”

That he calls these “screw-ups” didn’t prevent his DOJ from filing a six count indictment this week against the guards on duty the night Epstein died, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, an overarching conspiracy charge along with false records charges for each of five prisoner checks one or both of them had claimed to have done that night, but did not.

It’s an odd indictment.

It shows that in addition to Thomas and Noel, two other guards filed false records, one — along with Noel, for a 4PM prisoner check during which Epstein wasn’t even on the floor — and another –again with Noel, for a 10PM check.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that they failed to complete the checks because they were trying to facilitate suicide. Indeed, Thomas is described as one of the guards who had found Epstein before his earlier suicide attempt succeeded on July 23. More importantly, when Epstein was found dead (the indictment is very unclear about who first found him, though the implication is Thomas was), both defendants immediately admitted they hadn’t done their job.

NOEL told Supervisor-1 “we did not complete the 3 a.m. nor 5 a.m. rounds.” THOMAS stated, “we messed up,” and “I messed up, she’s not to blame, we didn’t do any rounds.”

Additionally, there’s no time of death in the indictment, leaving open the possibility that Epstein died before Thomas came on shift at midnight, meaning one of the other guards would be the other responsible party.

While the conspiracy charge relies, in part, on a ConFraudUs argument — effectively arguing that by making false records claiming they had done their rounds, they impaired the lawful function of the government, the indictment also alleges they intended to impair “the investigation or proper administration” of government.

Sure, they impaired their supervisor’s ability to bust them for slacking (and, for two hours, literally sleeping) on the job. Sure, they impaired an escalating bed check system that was unnecessary in any case to find Epstein.

It’s certainly possible that the government suspects there’s more to this, that Thomas, having been involved in thwarting Epstein’s first suicide, he got recruited to facilitate his second one. It’s possible the government is suspicious about the fact that Noel walked up to the door of Epstein’s unit around 10:30PM. Certainly, by larding on six charges, they’re holding an axe over the guards’ heads to make them plead out quickly. Though there’s no reason to believe either one of them was involved in the more important failure, to make sure Epstein had a cellmate who could have called guards right away.

But as presented, the evidence presented in this indictment suggests not so much a conspiracy to make it easier for Epstein to kill himself, but instead, a conspiracy — one involving other guards on the SHU that night — to cut corners to make their thankless job easier. Part of that seems driven the pay and understaffing leading guards to take taxing overtime shifts; both defendants were working an overtime shift that night, with Noel working 16 hours straight that day.

I don’t mean to apologize for the defendants for behavior that, with several other factors, created the opportunity for Epstein to kill himself.

Rather, I mean to highlight how the grunts in this story are being threatened with long prison sentences, while the guy (once again) watching videos himself rather than fixing the systemic problems gets away with calling it “a perfect storm of screw-ups.”

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34 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Did the report mean a, “safe, secure orangutan prison system.” Or a “humane” one? Either objective seems as distant as the other.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    You mentioned it, but I did not see in the report summary, “low pay” in the list of grievances that need to be addressed. I should think they could raise it quite a bit if they stopped overpaying for private for-profit prisons elsewhere in the system.

    • joejim says:

      “Perfect” storm seems like a cavalier witticism, an obscene choice of a term for conditions which allow for an inmate in solitary who had just attempted suicide to succeed at it, what was a it? A week later?

      The Review is a little maddening. Couldn’t find a word about the little incidentals that the press covered for a day or two, about the MCC Secure Housing Unit, like the rats and other infestations, or the routine of stopped up toilets overflowing the entire floorspace of cells for days.
      And of the Brooklyn lock-up, “Specifically, we found that temperatures in certain housing units dropped below the BOP target temperature of 68 degrees on multiple occasions in January, February, and March 2019” a reference that includes the 7 days in January when the temperature was in the low teens and there was no heat or light for 1700 people, and nothing done to compensate for the skimpy uniforms and single blankets per cell.

      There may have been a positive fall out from the Epstein suicide disgrace. At a local FDC they cleared a regular unit out and refilled it with a couple dozen guys who were in SHU for self protection. Apparently they are actually protecting inmates, including accused sex offenders, instead of forcing them to do solitary! Rumor was a BOP edict came around post-Epstein to get people out of SHU if possible.

  3. Vicks says:

    Perfect storm of screw ups?
    Hell no.
    This administration needs a reality check.
    In the real world, people are accountable for their actions AND inactions.
    If either leads to unfortunate results the buck stops with those in charge.
    If things are done and said that cover up crimes or spread information whoever wrote or said them becomes complicit in those crimes.
    I am so sick of this bullshit I could scream.
    This country has one set of fucking rules.
    I will say it again.
    This country has one set of rules.
    They apply to everyone equally.
    Until both sides are willing to hold themselves AND their “team” to the same standards they hold the opposition; the ONLY people that will win are those with the POWER and MONEY to do so.

  4. klynn says:

    Edit for BBarr:
    Not “ a perfect storm of screw ups…”

    Should have said:
    “…my perfect storm of screw ups…”

    • drouse says:

      Should be Darkness of Nunes. Makes me think of scientists putting photo-receptors in subterranean tanks hoping to observe the faint firing of a neuron. And not finding one.

          • P J Evans says:

            Sorry to bring you bad tidings. The big subterranean tanks are the ones they use for neutrinos and cosmic rays. They don’t need that big stuff for neurons. Mostly they use dyes and high-end microscopes. (I read Science News.)

            • Eureka says:

              This whole conversation reminds me of the time Jose Canseco was trying to find someone to smash some neutrinos for him so he could save the planet.

              His ideas were …not bad, in fact pretty good. Merely impractical at the time of writing.

        • John K says:

          It may be a somewhat densely mixed metaphor but I think he’s referring to the neurons in Devin’s brain.
          The examination of his head revealed nothing.

          • P J Evans says:

            I think it would take a SEM scan to find his brain. (Hey, they can get pictures of atoms – they should be able to find something in that vacuum inside his skull!)

  5. e.a.f. says:

    It is easy to charge the guards those who are responsible for E. suicide are those who were in charge of allocating funds for the BOP, Barr, those in charge, not some person who worked 16 straight and fell asleep.

    Barr watched the tapes himself and came to these conclusions. That on its own makes me suspicious. Who even believes he watched the tapes himself. In my opinion he is lying. Obviously the man thinks people will believe his version because he is the A.G., but given he is Barr and was appointed by dtrump and some of his other actions, don’t believe anything which comes out of his mouth. he just looks so sleezy.

    • sproggit says:

      The far more disturbing thing from my point of view is that the number of people dying in US jails has now become so significant that it is actually prompting newspapers in other nations to report the details as alarming. See here:-
      https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/26/us-prisons-jails-inmate-deaths

      But this is why it is incredulous to me that, with everything else going on, Bill Barr can find time to personally investigate Epstein’s death.

      He finds the time to fly around the world attempting to dig up dirt on the 2016 investigations in to Russian meddling in the Presidential election…
      He finds the time to personally sit and watch tapes related to the Epstein “suicide”.

      Yet when a whistle-blower brings forward credible, urgent evidence of wrong-doing, both he and his DoJ find nothing unusual?

      It is all too easy to write this off as the aberration of one particular post-holder, to say that President Trump has “found his Roy Cohn” and to point to Barr’s highly expansive views on the power of the Executive. But this situation is far, far, more dangerous than that.

      The Attorney General and the Department of Justice exist to ensure that the law of the land is upheld consistently, fairly, without fear or favor. Not to satisfy the whims of the AG or the President.

      An AG who truly served the American People would not be permitting the Executive to shield fact witnesses from Congressional investigations. An AG who truly served the American People would not be running around at the whim of the President, but would be prioritizing the most egregious abuses in the country.

      What is the AG doing with respect to the Sackler fiasco?
      What about Flint, Michigan?
      What about the rights of native peoples being abused and beaten while an oil pipeline is being forced through their lands?

      The scariest thing is not that he is behaving the way that he is. The scariest thing is that the nation has become so inured to this conduct that nobody says anything.

  6. bmaz says:

    I don’t know how many people here have ever been to a MCC facility. Or even a MDC or RCI (yeah, they kind of are different because of putative security levels). I have been in all three, though not the Manhattan MCC where Epstein was. Have several friends that either did, or still do, go there regularly.

    And if you have been in any such facility, I hope it was only to visit someone. They are, at best, not fun places. Always look shiny on the outside, but always stark on the inside. That is the nature of detention facilities, and it is arguably worse in state level detention facilities, commonly known as “jails”. There is no way to sugar coat any of it. And if you think you know, but have never been to any of the above, you don’t know the half of it.

    Why is it always so bad? Funding. Even stark facilities can be humane if funded and staffed competently. They never are. As much as I loath Bill Barr, and I do, he is not wrong in some regards and the higher on the ladder positioning of this issue is a good thing in the long run. Also, this has been a glaring problem for decades irrespective of Barr. This is one thing that is not really on him.

    If you really want to know more, there is a relatively new group known as “The Justice Collaborative” that is absolutely superb, and is helmed by many friends, both of mine, Marcy and this blog. Check them out. There are people out there working on this issue. But until the greater public and bureaucracy put their money where their mouthes are, there will be no change.

    • bg says:

      I have been and have seen some of the practices based on the privatization of communications (just one example). Here the MDC is about 20 miles outside of town, there is no way to learn if the communication cameras are working or if there is a lock down to prevent a visit until one drives all the way there and is then turned away or must wait hours to visit with someone because the number of working cameras is low. Poor people with few means and broken vehicles drive out there, once a woman with her infant drove more than 2 hours one way only to be turned away for a visit. Probably because I have some privilege and went to the County Commission to talk about this, there have been some changes. SECURUS, the company that essentially has the contract for all these cameras across the US (at Manafort’s prison, I noticed as well) does not do much to make sure the equipment is working properly. The issue of suicide is a constant fear for every prisoner and their family and friends. The prison where my friend is currently held is 4 hours away, one way. The burden on families/friends to maintain contact is very hard. I think half of my letters have been returned for some kind of “security” issue: greeting cards not allowed, colored ink not allowed, etc. etc. Even if one is smart and attempts to follow the rules, it is discouraging. Privatization of prisons has been terrible. Maybe about 20 years ago I copied an article from The Nation (I think) and took to every legislator when they were discussing the turnover from state run to the private prison industry. Of course it was a wasted effort. The Speaker of the House (a D) was promoting this, and it passed. Eventually he ended up in “the system” himself after being convicted for contract fixing during construction of a new courthouse.

      • bmaz says:

        Yep. More than familiar with Securus Technologies. They suck, and on many levels. That is kind of my point. It is not just MCC Manhattan, and no Epstein is not that shocking. The issue is far broader, and it does indeed need to be fixed.

      • Eureka says:

        Related not to your specific points but your broader one on the (in)dignities of prison, just want to add that on Monday PBS is having a special, “College Behind Bars”, on the positive impact of education in prison (well it’s focused on one particular initiative, but generality would be the aim).

        Your comment reminded me, too, of the growing problem of prisoners being unable to get books to read, with some of the draconian rules which vary by jurisdiction. I don’t know of a single-link clearing house but there are ways to donate by searching ~ books for prisoners (jurisdiction/ locale/ state).

  7. P J Evans says:

    The ruling is in: McGahn must comply with the subpoena.
    https://twitter.com/hsu_spencer/status/1199098572022730752
    “Judge rules ex-White House counsel Donald McGahn must comply with House subpoena in impeachment inquiry, as Trump’s claim that top aides have ‘absolute immunity’ against testifying triggers a historic separation-of-powers confrontation.”
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/john-boltons-former-deputy-asks-judge-to-resolve-conflicting-demands-for-house-impeachment-testimony/2019/10/31/6119ae8c-f9b0-11e9-8190-6be4deb56e01_story.html

    • RWood says:

      And Bolton’s lawyer is already saying that the ruling doesn’t apply to his clients.

      This guy is pretzel shaped, but I guess when you have no spine that’s easy.

  8. Terry Lo says:

    When the powers that be in a bureaucracy, like this jail, are held accountable, and not the ordinary worker bees, then change will happen, and in a hurry.

    • bmaz says:

      “Like this jail”???

      How many “jails” have you actually been to? If the answer is more than zero let me know. And do tell about detention facility security and protocol, and how nothing like Epstein was foreseeable. Please.

      And, adding, welcome to Emptywheel. Please comment often. But, if you do, don’t think people here are not informed, nor know how to call out bunk when they see it.

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