The US government is shutting down an embattled federal jail in New York City after a slew of problems that came to light following disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein's suicide there two years ago.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan will be closed at least temporarily to address issues that have long plagued the facility, including lax security and crumbling infrastructure.
The facility, which has held inmates such as Mexican drug lord and escape artist Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Mafia boss John Gotti, currently has 233 inmates, down from a normal population of 600 or more. Most of them are expected to be transferred to a federal jail in Brooklyn.
The decision to close the Metropolitan Correctional Center — billed as one of the most secure jails in America — comes weeks after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco toured the jail and saw the conditions firsthand.
Until recently, the facility had been recruiting new staff. Now, employees are being sent letters notifying them of a reduction in force.
"In an effort to address the issues at MCC NY as quickly and efficiently as possible, the Department has decided to close the MCC, at least temporarily, until those issues have been resolved," the Justice Department said in a written statement.
The department did not give a timetable for the closure, saying that planning is under way and that updates would be provided as the process continues.
"The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that every facility in the federal prison system is not only safe and secure, but also provides people in custody with the resources and programs they need to make a successful return to society after they have served their time," the statement said.
Epstein's death a month after his arrest on child sex trafficking charges has been a lingering shadow over the jail, which was since marred by the rampant spread of the coronavirus, inmates' complaints about squalid conditions, a smuggled gun, an inmate's death and a revolving door of wardens.
Inmates and lawyers have complained in recent years that the jail was infested with mice, rats and cockroaches and that multiple inmates were forced to share dirty sinks and toilets that leaked water, urine and faeces. Water leaks across multiple floors have been blamed for structural issues at the jail.
Jack Donson, a former prison official who worked for the Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades, said given all the remediation needed, it could be years before the Metropolitan Correctional Center reopens — if at all.
"It's been a long time coming addressing the infrastructure issues," Donson said in a telephone interview. "Is it coincidental with the recent publicity of the Epstein suicide and the rampant corruption in that facility? It makes sense to maybe start anew."
The Metropolitan Correctional Center's former star inhabitants included Guzman, Gotti, several close associates of Osama bin Laden and Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff.
Guzmán was held at the Manhattan jail while on trial in Brooklyn in 2019, prompting closures of the Brooklyn Bridge each day as he was taken to and from court.
The Metropolitan Detention Center, the Brooklyn jail that will absorb Metropolitan Correctional Center inmates, has drawn scrutiny for problems including sexual assault allegations against correctional officers, a week-long power failure in January 2019, and an inmate's death last year after he was sprayed with pepper spray.
Donson said the larger Brooklyn facility, which currently has about 1500 inmates including Epstein's longtime confidante Ghislaine Maxwell and singer R. Kelly, has the capacity to permanently replace the Manhattan jail.
"Do they really need MCC?" Donson said. "They don't really need it right now in my opinion — bed wise, capacity wise."
The Justice Department's inspector general has yet to complete an investigation into lapses at the Metropolitan Correctional Center that allowed Epstein to end his life. Two correctional officers responsible for monitoring him that night have pleaded guilty to charges they lied on prison records because they were sleeping and browsing the internet instead of doing their jobs.
In March 2020, just before the pandemic prompted federal prisons to halt visitation, the jail went on a week-long lockdown after officials got a tip that a gun may have been smuggled inside. Investigators found a handgun and turned up other banned items, such as cellphones, narcotics and homemade weapons, sparking an ongoing criminal probe into guard misconduct.
After the gun was discovered, then-Attorney General William Barr launched a task force to address criminal misconduct by officers at several correctional facilities.
As the coronavirus took hold, Metropolitan Correctional Center employees weren't able to get masks and staff restrooms ran out of soap. Workers in charge of refilling the dispensers were pressed into duty as correctional officers because of staffing shortages. Early in the crisis, more than 25 per cent of staff positions were vacant.
A few months later, a court-authorised inspection found inmates with coronavirus symptoms were neglected and social distancing was almost non-existent, with some inmates sleeping on bunks within arm's reach of each other.
Earlier this year, the jail was rocked by allegations that an inmate whose lawyer says he has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old child was left in a holding cell for 24 hours while awaiting a competency evaluation, a violation of prison system regulations.
Around the same time, a correctional officer at the facility had also reported sexual misconduct by a superior, which officials at the jail delayed reporting to senior Bureau of Prisons officials.