Attorneys for the two prison guards charged Tuesday in relation to Jeffrey Epstein’s death have sought to shift blame from their clients to broader problems with the prison.
Jason E. Foy, an attorney for prison guard Tova Noel, released a statement Wednesday that did not directly challenge the indictment’s allegations that Noel and Michael Thomas had slept and browsed the internet when they were supposed to be checking on Jeffrey Epstein and other prisoners.
Instead, Foy’s statement noted the “notoriously difficult conditions” of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan.
“In fact, Ms. Noel remains available to fully and truthfully cooperate with the Inspector General’s investigation, which is also geared toward uncovering the many problems that existed from the commencement of her employment which continue to plague the (MCC),” he added.
Montell Figgins, an attorney for Thomas, made a similar argument outside court on Tuesday.
“We had hoped that the US Attorney’s Office would make an effort to try to address the systematic failures in respect to the Bureau of Prisons,” he said. “They chose instead to indict Mr. Thomas and charged him with four counts and an indictment which Mr. Thomas is fully prepared to defend.”
The attorneys’ comments are part of a broader recognition from federal officials and prison employees that Epstein’s death was a symptom of systemic issues at the prison, including under-staffing, mandatory overtime and ill-trained guards.
Even as Noel and Thomas were charged in court, the recently appointed head of the Bureau of Prisons acknowledged the staffing issues in testimony to Congress.
“We grew so big with so few staff that we were stretched to our limits,” Bureau of Prisons director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer said. “Policies were sound – staff don’t always follow them because they were stretched too thin.”
Noel and Thomas, the two guards on duty when Epstein died in his cell, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and filing false records in federal court on Tuesday. Prosecutors say the two guards did not do their required rounds or counts in the prison, yet falsely filled out records saying they did.
When they went to check on Epstein at 6:30 a.m. on August 10, they found him dead in his cell with a noose around his neck, the indictment says.
“We messed up,” Thomas reportedly told a supervisor, according to the indictment. “I messed up, she’s not to blame, we didn’t do any rounds.”
Epstein was alone in his cell all night, and internal surveillance video shows that no one entered the tier where Epstein was housed overnight, the indictment says. The New York City Medical Examiner has ruled his death a suicide by hanging.
Epstein, an enigmatic multimillionaire, had been accused of operating a sex-trafficking ring of underage girls from 2002 to 2005, and was in prison awaiting trial when he died.
Understaffed and overworked
The issues with working conditions and understaffing of the prison were evident immediately following Epstein’s death.
On the night Epstein died, Noel was working the second of back-to-back 8-hour shifts, the indictment says. Thomas, meanwhile, was primarily assigned to work as a materials handler supervisor, yet he also regularly worked overtime shifts as a correctional officer.
“These indictments don’t address the core issues inside of the Metropolitan Correctional Center New York or the Federal Prison system in its entirety,” said Tyrone Covington, the president of the local union representing MCC officers.
“These staff where placed in an assignment where the tools and resources needed to be successful were not available. Simply assigning blame will not correct the staff shortages that put this chain of events in place.”
Covington also said that the indictments “are a mask to cover up the true issues and merely be able to create a narrative that government has taken action.”
Understaffing is a particularly acute issue in places with a high cost of living, such as MCC in Manhattan, according to Eric Young, the president of the AFGE Council of Prison Locals, which represents more than 33,000 Bureau of Prisons employees.
In a column for CNN in late August, Young said the union has repeatedly argued that prison employees across the country are underpaid and overworked. That has consequences.
“It is not surprising that when officers work 60-80 hours per week, with non-security staff filling in, fatigue sets in, allowing shortcuts and other mistakes to be made,” he wrote.
How federal officials have responded
Federal officials appear to have heard the message. Attorney General William Barr said in August that there were “serious irregularities” at the prison, and he removed Hugh Hurwitz, the acting head of the Bureau of Prisons at the time.
His replacement, Hawk Sawyer, testified in Congress on Tuesday that the Bureau of Prisons has identified a number of other instances where guards skipped inmate checks and referred those cases to the Justice Department inspector general.
“We are zealously going about trying to determine which of our employees are good employees and who do their job, and that is the vast majority of prison staff, but we do have some I know out there who obviously choose not to follow policy, choose not to do their job, and we want them gone,” she said.
Hawk Sawyer also said she has driven efforts to improve staffing at prison facilities, which she said was at the root of some guard misconduct.
The Bureau of Prisons has hired several new employees to their staff processing center in Texas and has received more hiring authorities from the Department of Justice in recent months, Hawk Sawyer said.
The BOP has hired 2,400 new staffers since January and has worked to fill shortages specifically at the MCC by sending temporary guards in on a rolling basis from facilities across the country, according to a BOP official.
Guard is a US military veteran
Noel, the 31-year-old guard charged on Tuesday, has no criminal record and served in the Army National Guard from 2008 to 2014, according to Foy, her attorney. She later got a degree in criminal justice and began working as a corrections officer at MCC in June 2018, Foy said.
In his statement, Foy cast his client’s actions on that August evening as a work issue but not a criminal one.
“The Government’s decision to criminalize work performance, when there is an administrative process available through the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by her union with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is disappointing,” he said.
He also said he will continue to work with the government in good faith to “fairly settle this matter.”
“Jeffrey Epstein’s decision to take his life is a tragedy on many levels. It is our hope to persuade the Government officials not to create another victim of Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent act of suicide,” he wrote. “Ms. Noel and our nation deserve a more appropriate, responsible and graceful response to this tragedy.”
CNN’s Evan Perez and Kara Scannell contributed to this report.