The jail where Epstein killed himself is crumbling

Thursday, September 23, 2021

NEW YORK (AP) — Inside the notorious federal jail in Lower Manhattan, small chunks of concrete fall from the ceiling. Freezing temperatures force inmates to stuff old coronavirus face masks into vents to try to stop the cold air.

One cell is off-limits because the door is now unstable - likely because of constant pounding over the years from the prisoners inside on the cinder-block walls.

Once hailed as a prototype for a new kind of federal jail and the most secure in the country, the Metropolitan Correctional Center has become a blighted wreck, so deteriorated it’s impossible to safely house inmates. The Justice Department said last month it would close the jail in the coming months to undertake muchneeded repairs - but it may never reopen.

The Associated Press was granted rare access inside — the first time a reporter has toured the facility since wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself there in August 2019. His death exposed a slew of problems inside the jail, and that list has only grown: rampant spread of the coronavirus, recording of squalid conditions, a loaded gun smuggled in, another inmate’s death.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center has housed a slew of well-known criminals — El Chapo, John Gotti, Bernie Madoff, and some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. Prisoners are held at the jail as they await their trials or transfers to federal prisons after conviction. It has housed close to 900 inmates in the past.

Now, about 200 inmates are left. Around 125 will be moved to the federal detention center just over the Brooklyn Bridge in downtown Brooklyn, and and about 75 will head to FCI Otisville, a medium-security prison in upstate New York. But until they get transferred, they are serving time in squalor.

The pathway that trucks and buses would take inside isn’t useable because of structural concerns from decades of wear and tear, so inmates instead are brought in and out through pedestrian walkways outside, significantly raising security and safety concerns.

The ceiling in one part of the kitchen is falling in and it’s too unsafe to wash dishes, so inmates now eat off paper plates. In one housing unit, one of two sinks has a slow and steady drip; paint is peeling from the walls near the window and black spots stain the tiles in the single shower.

When the jail was built, the architect said he was told to make it “as little like a prison as possible,” a new style of lock-up for an urban area, not spread out over mass grounds but a vertical building more like a college dormitory or a hotel than a detention center.

But what was hailed by the Justice Department in the 1970s as a “quantum leap forward from traditional jails” eventually backslid into one. Lofty amenities fell by the wayside and even basic jail accommodations, like working cell doors, got harder to come by.

Within two years of its opening, it was already showing signs of failure. Its population had ballooned to 539 inmates -- 90 more than it had been designed for -- prompting a judge to declare the jail “unacceptably cramped and oppressive for most healthy inmates.”

Since then, it has slowly fallen into dank decay. The pipes are so old they sometimes stop working, and some are in such narrow quarters no one can get close to fix them. Repairing them is costly and requires cutting water, heat, or air conditioning to the entire jail. That means long-term repairs or upgrades aren’t feasible while prisoners are inside.

Certain housing units are no longer used because cell door openings known as food ports won’t close. Inmates might grab officers through the broken slots and assault them.

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