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Epstein's Death Fuels Many Questions, But So Far, Few Answers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The news that Jeffrey Epstein died yesterday, apparently by suicide, while in a federal jail cell has left many people outraged. But it's also left many people wondering how it was possible since Epstein was exactly the kind of prisoner that would seem to warrant a lot of supervision - wealthy, well-known, accused of sex crimes involving young girls and a person who'd made what appeared to be a previous suicide attempt. To ask those questions, we've called Cameron Lindsay, who has many decades of experience in corrections, including as a warden of three federal facilities. And he's with us now via Skype from Morgantown, W.V.

Mr. Lindsay, thanks so much for joining us.

CAMERON LINDSAY: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, given your background, just what was your reaction when you heard that Epstein had died while at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan?

LINDSAY: Utter shock, frankly. This is a quintessential failure for the facility, and it should never have happened based on the totality of the circumstances and what was known.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example of why you say that from your background as a - I mean, I mentioned a couple of things, but tell why those things would warrant an extra level of supervision.

LINDSAY: What I see, frankly, is where the Bureau of Prisons made two errors with respect to this issue. First of all, it's my understanding that prior to Epstein's suicide attempt in July that he was allegedly celled with another inmate. Although nothing catastrophic occurred because of that, that, from my perspective, would be a severe error in terms of sound correctional judgment.

MARTIN: And why is that? Why is that?

LINDSAY: The reason is because in the subculture of jails and prisons, an inmate like Epstein is - to kill an inmate like Epstein is a badge of honor for many inmates. He's a perfect target for death. I mean, as you said, this guy's a billionaire. People are going to perceived him as soft and rich and entitled. He's involved allegedly in human trafficking and sexual assault on girls. I mean, he's a perfect target to be killed.

So although nothing, as I say, catastrophic occurred there, that was a mistake in judgment. And it brings into question, you know, what's going on here in terms of decision-making. Now, subsequent to his alleged suicide attempt, from my perspective, unequivocally, he should have remained on suicide watch.

MARTIN: We know that multiple news organizations have reported that he was not under suicide watch. We have not been able to confirm that ourselves, and the authorities have not specifically said. Can you just describe for people who've never been involved in these facilities, what does suicide watch look like? How is that different from the way other people are treated?

LINDSAY: Sure. OK. So in almost all of the more than 120 Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, suicide watch entails a number of specially designed cells that lack protuberances and other designs where an inmate could easily harm oneself if he or she attempted. When an inmate is on suicide watch, he or she is observed under direct and constant supervision. And that's a good thing. That's where he should have been.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people will be looking for in the days ahead is if there's any video surveillance of access to this cell. Does that exist?

LINDSAY: It would be very atypical for any video to exist pointing into the cell. I'm not going to say that that never happens in some prisons, but it's rare. It's not a practice that the Federal Bureau of Prisons engages in, typically. I never saw it in my 20-year career with them. I - in all my years as being warden and so on, I never saw where a camera was pointed inside a cell.

MARTIN: I want to also mention that he's not the only high-profile prisoner to die in a federal facility. For example, the convicted mob boss Whitey Bulger was killed in a federal prison in 2018 just a day after he was transferred there. And I just - I understand that these individuals are not people who elicit a great deal of sympathy from the general public. But what would you say to the public to persuade them that they should take note of this and that it actually does matter? I guess the question is, why does it matter that people die in these facilities?

LINDSAY: When we lose sight of the importance of our Constitution and upholding our systems of justice, then we slide a little bit - not to sound dramatic, but we slide a little closer to anarchy. We in the criminal justice field have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to uphold our systems of justice. And that's for the victims. I frankly don't really care about Jeffrey Epstein. But I care about our systems of justice, and these kinds of things just can't happen.

MARTIN: That's Cameron Lindsay. He's a former warden at three federal facilities, and he's been in top leadership posts and numerous others.

Mr. Lindsay, thanks so much for talking to us today.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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