The apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan on Saturday is placing the troubled lockup in the national spotlight.
But local defense lawyers and the union representing federal correction officers say they have long been sounding alarms about the jail.
"We have dealt with problems with the MCC for years and years and years. All sorts of problems. Issues with medical care. Issues with attorney access, to be able to meet with clients. Just the general conditions of the facility. It's a difficult place to do time," said David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, an arm of Legal Aid.
The federal Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department, operates the MCC, which was built in 1975 on Park Row. Although it has been dogged by complaints of poor conditions, mismanagement, and understaffing, inmate suicides are rare, and Epstein, a high-profile detainee held on sex trafficking charges, was supposed to be carefully monitored.
"I was appalled — and indeed the whole department was — and frankly angry to learn of the MCC's failure to adequately secure this prisoner," U.S. Attorney General William Barr said.
Although he was taken off suicide watch late last month, Epstein was supposed to be checked every 30 minutes. But the New York Times says that protocol was not followed in the hours before he was found dead Saturday morning in his cell, of an apparent hanging. Nor did he have a cellmate, another requirement of inmates like Epstein who are assigned "special observation status."
"We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation," Barr said. "The FBI and the Office of Inspector General are doing just that. We will get to the bottom of what happened, and there will be accountability."
The national union representing more than 30,000 federal corrections officers blamed a hiring freeze for some of the issues inside the MCC.
The MCC is so short-staffed that correction officers are being offered a $10,000 bonus to transfer there from other federal lockups.
When Epstein died, an officer in that unit of the jail was working a fifth straight day of overtime, and another guard was working mandatory overtime.
Patton says he hopes Epstein's death brings desperately-needed reforms to the facility.
Late-Monday night, the Associated Press reported that a person familiar with operations at the federal jail said one of the two people guarding Epstein the night he died wasn't a correctional officer.
The person wasn't authorized to disclose information about the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The person said Epstein hanged himself with a bedsheet, days after being taken off a suicide watch.
Federal prisons facing shortages of fully trained guards have resorted to having other types of support staff fill in for correctional officers, including clerical workers and teachers.
Jail policy called for guards to check Epstein every 30 minutes, but investigators have learned those checks weren't done for several hours in the hours before he was discovered Saturday.
That's according to a second person who was not authorized to discuss the matter and also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.