NEW YORK - The U.S. government said Thursday it is shutting down an embattled federal jail in New York City after a slew of problems that came to light following Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide there two years ago.
The federal Bureau of Prisons said the Metropolitan Correctional Center will be closed at least temporarily to address issues that have long plagued the facility, including lax security and crumbling infrastructure.
The facility, in a complex of government buildings in lower Manhattan, currently has 233 inmates, down from a normal population of 600 inmates or more. Most of them are expected to be transferred to a federal jail in Brooklyn.
The decision to close the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which had been 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.
"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 underway and that updates would be provided as the process continues.
The jail counts among its former star inhabitants the Mexican drug lord and escape artist Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mafia boss John Gotti, several close associates of Osama bin Laden and Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff.
"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.
The Justice Department’s inspector general has yet to complete an investigation into lapses that allowed the disgraced financier 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 weeklong 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 also launched a Justice Department 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, while 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% of staff positions were vacant.
In May 2020, a court-authorized inspection found that inmates with coronavirus symptoms were neglected and ignored and social distancing was almost nonexistent, 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.