— Paul Blair (@gopaulblair) February 22, 2020
By Michael Balsamo and Michael R. Sisak, AP
The federal jail in New York City where wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life is on lockdown as authorities try to determine whether someone smuggled a gun inside one of the most secure federal jails in the country, three people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
Officials have not yet determined whether a weapon was actually brought into the Metropolitan Correctional Center but placed the jail on lockdown as the investigation continues, the people said. The people were not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The facility is on “modified operations due to an ongoing investigation,” the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement. Officials are restricting the movement of inmates and making changes to programs while authorities investigate. They have also canceled all visits at the Manhattan jail, which houses more than 700 inmates, including from attorneys.
The lockdown comes just days after Attorney General William Barr named a new director of the federal prison system.
“When any given facility is on modified operations, they remain so until an incident can be thoroughly investigated to ensure the safety of staff and inmates,” the agency said in a statement. The agency places jails on modified operations for several reasons, including “inmate altercations or intelligence indicating potential safety threats,” the statement said.
All visitors and inmates are searched before entering the facility and go through metal detectors, leaving personal belongings outside of the jail. All mail is also screened by correctional staff. A gun smuggled inside the jail would be a major breach of security protocols.
The jail currently houses a number of high-profile inmates, including attorney Michael Avenatti, who gained fame by representing porn star Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving President Donald Trump and was convicted of trying to extort sportswear giant Nike. It has also housed Mexican drug kingpin and escape artist Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman who was sentenced to life behind bars after a trial in New York.
The Bureau of Prisons, which has been plagued for years by violence, misconduct and a chronic staffing shortage, has been in the spotlight since Epstein killed himself in August while awaiting trial on charges he sexually abused girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s.
His death highlighted a highlighted a series of safety lapses at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York and Attorney General William Barr told the AP that a “perfect storm of screw ups” led to Epstein’s ability to take his own life while in federal custody. The cell where he died was in a high-security unit, famous for having held terrorists and drug cartel kingpins. Epstein’s death revealed the jail was suffering from problems including chronic staffing shortages that lead to mandatory overtime for guards day after day and other staff being pressed into service as correctional officers.
The inspector general is investigating, and the Justice Department is still looking into the circumstances that led to Epstein’s death, including why he wasn’t given a cellmate. Two correctional officers responsible for watching Epstein have pleaded not guilty to charges alleging they lied on prison records to conceal they were sleeping and browsing the internet during the hours they were supposed to be checking on Epstein, as required, before his death.
The warden in charge of the jail when Epstein took his own life was ordered reassigned to a desk post at the Bureau of Prisons’ regional office in Pennsylvania after Epstein’s death, but in January the Bureau of Prisons planned to move him into a leadership position at another federal correctional facility, putting him back in the field with inmates despite an ongoing investigation. That planned transfer was put on hold after the AP reported it, in part because the investigations haven’t been completed.