After Jeffrey Epstein suicide, Bureau of Prisons tells guards: Stop surfing the web and watch inmates
WASHINGTON—The federal Bureau of Prisons is curtailing staffers’ access to the internet and cell phones to guard against “unnecessary distractions” that allegedly contributed to guards’ failure to prevent the suicide of accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
“When on the job, your full attention should be focused on the behavior of the inmates in your charge and the activity going on around you,” Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer wrote in an agency-wide memorandum distributed last week.
A ban on government-issued cell phone use “within the secure perimeter of each institution” has already taken effect, Hawk Sawyer wrote, and there are plans to expand that to smart watches with texting functions. Staffers’ personal cell phones have been largely banned from federal prisons for some time.
“Some internet access will soon be curtailed so that distractions will be eliminated,” she wrote. Access to the internet on government devices and computers would be allowed “only to complete required daily work.”
“We must not allow technology to be our enemy by taking our eyes and ears off the interactions around us or limit our face-to-face interaction with staff and inmates,” she wrote. “Ours is a people business.”
BOP spokeswoman Nancy Ayers said the changes are part of a “back to basics approach, emphasizing sound correctional management.” The effort to limit the distractions of government computers, smart watches and other technology is part of a larger effort to improve safety and security, she said.
In the memo, Hawk Sawyer made only indirect references to the cascading failures disclosed after Epstein’s suicide at the Manhattan Correctional Center in August.
Two guards have been charged with falsifying duty logs to allegedly cover for time spent sleeping and browsing the internet when they should have been patrolling the unit where Epstein was housed.
Federal prosecutors alleged thatguards didn’t perform any inmate checks from 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 9 to 6:30 a.m. the following morning, when officers discovered Epstein had hanged himself with a bedsheet.
During that time, according to court documents, officers should have conducted five separate inmate counts in the high-security unit.
Both officers have pleaded not guilty.
Hawk Sawyer told the Senate Judiciary Committee in November that Epstein’s suicide was a “black eye on the entire Bureau of Prisons.”
“We have some bad staff; we want to get rid of bad staff,” she said. “The only time we ever get noticed is when something bad happens.”
Indeed, the incident prompted Attorney General William Barr to appoint Hawk Sawyer to lead the agency, which has been riven by staffing shortages and allegations of sexual harassment brought by female officers. The appointment brought Hawk Sawyer, a former federal prison psychologist, back to the agency she led between 1992 and 2003.
Union officials cautioned against a blanket prohibition on internet access, saying employees need web access to complete some of the agency’s most basic operations, including restocking supplies.
After Epstein’s suicide, “I expected something,” said Shane Fausey, national president of the prison workers union. “But I’m not sure (Hawk Sawyer) understands how much of our work now has some interface with the internet.”
Ayers said the need for technology to “perform vital job functions for specific duties and positions will be reviewed, and access will be tailored accordingly.”
Joe Rojas, vice president of the union’s southeast region, called the director’s internet and phone restrictions an “overreaction to the Epstein case.”
Apart from the new communications and technology limits, Fausey and Rojas said the director’s memo contained a proposal that has particularly rankled staffers.
Hawk Sawyer wrote that the agency is reevaluating the use of so-called compressed work schedules, in which thousands of prison staffers work four 10-hour days each week in exchange for an extra day off.
“It’s one of the most popular benefits we have to offer employees who can better manage their work and personal lives,” Fausey said.
Those schedules will be reviewed, according to Hawk Sawyer, to see whether they reduce productivity, increase costs or degrade the quality of staffers’ work.
Fausey said many of the agency’s woes could be addressed by tending to persistent staffing shortages across the country, including the Manhattan facility where Epstein was housed. For years, personnel shortages have required prisons to fill gaps by deploying teachers, clerical workers, kitchen staffers and nurses to work guard shifts.
Hawk Sawyer said in the memo that filling vacancies “continues to be our highest priority in 2020.” Although the agency hired 3,500 new staffers in 2019, the director said the bureau lost 2,700 to retirements and other departures.
“Until the agency hires an adequate amount of staff, you can point the finger where you want,” Fausey said, “but it always comes back to not having enough people to operate prisons efficiently and safely.”