Jerry Epstein and the Suicide Problem in our Prisons

By: CZ Knight-McManus
Originally appeared at: www.czmcmanus-writer.com

The apparent suicide of Jerry Epstein has given birth to a flood of media commentaries revealing the shortfalls of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) where Epstein was held. While his death raised a multitude of questions over the practices-policies and operation-oversight of that facility, the primary point(s) for this discussion shall remain focused upon the following deficiencies a multitude of media pundits have expressed dismay over: (1) staff shortages, (2) guards’ failure/refusal to abide by established policy, (3) staff falsifying documents, (4) suicide within the correctional setting. A prudent reader should ask the following question: are the shortfalls of the MCC exclusive to that facility? The response states that, in truth, the MCC shortfalls reveal a systemic trait throughout the entire correctional industry within the United States.

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I am an ex-con who, over the span of twenty consecutive years within the Texas DOC (TDCJ), was assigned to ten different prisons; the sentence was discharged in late 2011. Since then, I have been and continue to be active with prison issues on behalf of convicts, or cast in another light, I know what I am talking about and speak from a position of authority. TDCJ shall be a primary reference in this discussion, yet the shortfalls within Texas are mirrored across the entire United States prison complex to one degree or another.

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TDCJ experiences a 29% officer turnover rate juxtaposed with an estimated 3,000+ officer shortfall. As found in the MCC fiasco and its inability to retain guards, TDCJ and other DOC’s share the dilemma of not having an adequate number of staff to maintain safe operation. The problem is geometrically compounded when inexperienced officers, with little life-experience and inadequate training, are thrust into ensuring “safe operation.” This is a recipe for disaster and corruption.

Each of the ten facilities I was assigned to grappled with staff shortages while hoping inexperienced and ill-trained “new boots” (slang for a new officer) could fill the void. It was not uncommon to see officers sleeping, as was the case with the MCC facility; more than once I “held giggers” (a lookout) for an officer who required sleep. Prison guard naps are often a byproduct from required overtime which too frequently amounts to working double-shifts for extended periods of time. The union representing the MCC guards suggests their fatigue and napping could be a result of excessive overtime due to staff shortages.

Media outlets are reporting Epstein was left unobserved for several hours; if true, this not an uncommon occurrence. I have been on prisons where a guard is not seen in the dorm/cell-block for an entire shift except for count-time or passing out mail. The lack of security in this regard creates a number of situations where, like Epstein, suicides are attempted, escape attempts take place, inmate upon inmate sexual assaultand potential harm to officers. As witnessed in TDCJ, the MCC staff falsified official documents to coverup their shortfalls. Can anyone doubt the systemic shortfalls within the warp and woof of the correctional industry when the above are common place?

Epstein’s death casts light upon the obscene rates of attempted suicide in our prisons and how suicide is the leading cause of death behind the razor wire. In recent years the rate of suicide in our correctional facilities has increased by 30%.  Between 1-2011to 9-2015, TDCJ had 134 successful suicides; nearly 1/3 of that number were carried out by convicts locked-down in Administrative-Segregation (Ad-Seg). The startling aspect of this statistic is that of the entire 145,000+ TDCJ inmate population, only 4% of that number are housed in Ad-Seg. If a prisoner wants to commit suicide, she can, even if they are housed in Ad-Seg. Epstein would have been no exception when we consider all factors.

Epstein encountered a “perfect storm.”  The MCC was understaffed, the guards were overworked-undertrained, guards were apparently sleeping on duty, Epstein was not observed thereby permitting, adherence to MCC practice-policy was absent in addition to other factors too numerous for the limited scope of this discussion. If anything on the positive side of Epstein’s death comes to pass, hopefully all the chest-beating by politicians and lobotomized media pundits will force a re-thinking of how our correctional facilities handle potential suicide risks.