The apparent suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein has cast a harsh spotlight on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has been plagued by dangerous staffing shortages, violence and widespread sexual harassment of female officers, USA Today reports. The nation’s largest prison system has been struggling to fill up to 5,000 vacancies. Since last spring, after the abrupt departure of Director Mark Inch, the agency has been without permanent leadership. As Barr ordered an investigation into Epstein’s death, federal authorities were continuing to review the October murder of gangster Whitey Bulger at a West Virginia federal prison. “We’ve got a serious problem,” said Eric Young, national president of the federal prison workers union.
Union officials and members of Congress were sounding the alarm years before Epstein’s death, saying that both staffers and inmates were in danger mostly due to deep staffing shortages. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and other lawmakers last year cited the murder of a corrections officer in a Pennsylvania federal prison and the killings of two inmates at the Federal Correctional Center in Hazelton, West Virginia, the same facility where Bulger was beaten to death. Manchin suggested that the practice of deploying civilian prison workers–teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and counselors–to fill officer vacancies exacerbated the risk. The conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan, where Epstein died, closely resemble those at Hazelton at the time of Bulger’s killing, union officials said. Serene Gregg, the MCC workers’ union president, said officer vacancies are running “in excess” of 30 positions. As recently as last week, union officials raised concerns with prison authorities about the over-extended and ill-equipped workforce. Gregg said prison officials “have been playing a dangerous game for a long time. And it’s not just at MCC, it’s going on across the country.”