WASHINGTON – Two federal prison officers were charged Tuesday with falsifying records, stating they had checked on accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in the hours before he hanged himself in his Manhattan cell.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, assigned to Epstein’s special housing unit at Metropolitan Correctional Center, “browsed the Internet” and lingered in an office common area when they should have been conducting inmate checks.
Noel and Thomas signed “false certifications” attesting they had made their required rounds, according to court records.
Prosecutors alleged that no inmate checks were made from 10:30 p.m. Aug. 9 to 6:30 a.m. the following morning, when the officers discovered Epstein’s body. During that time, the officers should have conducted five separate inmate counts in the high-security unit.
“As alleged, the defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a news release. “Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction.”
Each defendant is charged with one count of conspiring to falsify records. Noel, 31, is charged with five counts of falsifying records; Thomas, 41, is charged with three.
The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to five years in prison. Each of the charges of falsifying records carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Noel and Thomas pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court Tuesday afternoon and were released on the condition that each post $100,000 bond within a week.
Epstein’s sudden death triggered a wave of recriminations from his many victims, who had anticipated his trial on sex trafficking and related conspiracy charges.
His suicide prompted a leadership shakeup at the federal Bureau of Prisons. Attorney General William Barr put Kathleen Hawk Sawyer in charge and ordered multiple investigations into the 66-year-old’s suicide, focusing on operations at the Manhattan facility where Epstein was held.
Indictments unsealed as head of prison agency testified before Congress
As the charges were unsealed in New York, Hawk Sawyer testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, where lawmakers expressed outrage over the security breakdown revealed by Epstein’s suicide.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called his death “a crisis of public trust” within the prison system.
“You are in this job because of this crisis,” Sasse told Hawk Sawyer, repeatedly calling for an explanation of how the system failed to keep track of such a high-profile inmate. “That bastard now won’t be able to testify against his other co-conspirators.”
Prosecutors alleged that Epstein “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls” at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, and at other locations from at least 2002 to 2005.
Sasse said the charges against the two staffers are overdue.
“Heads needed to roll the day Jeffrey Epstein died,” he said. “The Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice need to start giving the public some answers. These arrests are important, but they’re not the end of this.
“These guards aren’t the only ones who should stand trial – every one of Jeffrey Epstein’s co-conspirators should be spending the rest of their lives behind bars,” Sasse said.
Hawk Sawyer said she couldn’t comment on the ongoing criminal investigation and a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But she acknowledged that prison authorities discovered at least “a couple of other instances” in which officers failed to conduct required checks on inmates and falsified records to show that they had.
“We don’t want those people” working in federal prisons, she said. “This incident was a black eye on the entire Bureau of Prisons. We have some bad staff; we want to get rid of bad staff. The only time we ever noticed is when something bad happens.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Epstein’s death is a symptom of deeper problems within the prison system. Cruz called the suicide a “profound indictment of the system.”
Although representatives of Epstein’s family suggested the disgraced financier may have been murdered, Hawk Sawyer told lawmakers no evidence supports anything other than suicide.
Investigators focused on how Epstein had the opportunity to hang himself
Before New York’s chief medical examiner concluded that Epstein hanged himself with a bedsheet, his death was shadowed by conspiracy theories suggesting he had been murdered.
For months, federal authorities examined the conduct of the staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit and how he escaped notice.
Tuesday, prosecutors asserted that Noel and Thomas were the only officers assigned to Epstein’s housing unit, and no inmate checks were conducted for at least eight hours.
“Correctional officers swear an oath to carry out their duties,” Guido Modano, the special agent in charge of the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, said in a written statement.
Making rounds to check on inmates and certifying the accuracy of logs are critical “to ensure the safety and security of institutions and the well-being of inmates,” Modano said. “Those who shirk their duties but falsely state they have completed them place the institution, fellow employees, inmates, and the public at risk.”
Prisons plagued by understaffing
Prison union representatives have long warned that staff shortages and frequent overtime shifts have taken their toll on officers and compromised security at the Manhattan facility.
At the time of Epstein’s suicide, there were more than 30 staff vacancies at the facility, said Serene Gregg, local president of the prison workers’ union. Prison officials regularly assigned civilian staffers to work guard duty to plug unfilled officer positions, she said.
Ten of the 18 staffers who reported for duty on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, the one on which Epstein was found dead, were working overtime, according to federal prison records. On the previous shift, 4 p.m. to midnight, six of the 20 staffers were working overtime.
After Epstein’s death, Barr reassigned the warden at the New York detention center, and prison officials placed Noel and Thomas on administrative leave. One of the officers, according to prison records, had worked multiple overtime shifts before reporting to duty on Epstein’s unit.
Hawk Sawyer acknowledged significant staffing shortages Tuesday, telling lawmakers that prison officials are working to fill 3,000 vacancies across the system.
Many of the prisons, she said, are aging and need to be repaired. The failure of old camera systems prompted an effort to replace them at prisons around the country, including at the Manhattan detention center.
After the hearing, Hawk Sawyer issued a statement about the charges, saying, “I am committed to this agency and am confident we will restore the public’s trust in us.”
Epstein’s inner circle eyed: Jeffrey Epstein is dead. Prosecutors could still go after his inner circle if they helped him prey on young girls
Epstein removed from suicide watch
Three weeks before he died, Epstein had been found in his jail cell, semiconscious with bruises on his neck. That prompted authorities to put him on suicide watch. He was removed from suicide monitoring days later, which has drawn investigative interest.
Experts on jail suicide told USA TODAY that an inmate can be removed from suicide watch only if a licensed mental health professional concludes the inmate is no longer at risk for attempting suicide.
“When removing such a high-risk individual from suicide watch, it would be critical to do it in a step-down fashion so that there is still some extra monitoring,” said Lisa Boesky, a clinical psychologist and jail suicide expert from San Diego.
Boesky said Epstein was still “a high risk for suicide” because of the nature of his crimes, the humiliation he experienced after his arrest and his prior suicide attempt.
Jack Scarola, who represents some of Epstein’s accusers, said he’s pleased to see authorities investigate the circumstances of his death.
“Forty-five years of practicing law,” he said, “has convinced me that there are no coincidences.”
Contributing: Kristine Phillips