By Devlin Barrett / The Washington Post
Attorney General William Barr announced Monday that he is replacing the head of the Bureau of Prisons, in the latest fallout from the death in federal custody of multimillionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Hugh Hurwitz, the acting head of the agency, will be replaced by Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who previously served as Bureau of Prisons director from 1992 to 2003.
Barr also appointed Thomas Kane to serve as her deputy, a position that is currently vacant.
“I am pleased to welcome back Dr. Hawk Sawyer as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Barr said in a statement. “Under Dr. Hawk Sawyer’s previous tenure at the Bureau, she led the agency with excellence, innovation, and efficiency, receiving numerous awards for her outstanding leadership.”
Barr said Hurwitz would return to his previous role as an assistant director for the bureau’s reentry programs. The attorney general did not mention the Epstein case in his announcement.
Epstein’s death has already led to a shake-up at the federal detention center where he was being held. The warden of the Metropolitan Correctional Center was reassigned and the two guards who were supposed to be checking on his cell were placed on leave. Union officials have said such a death was inevitable because of the short staffing and forced overtime that guards are working.
The Justice Department sent additional Bureau of Prisons lieutenants from around the country to buttress the MCC workforce, and a suicide reconstruction team was sent to the facility to determine exactly how Epstein died, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Critics of the Bureau of Prisons have said Epstein’s death, combined with other security failures such as the still-uncharged killing of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger at a West Virginia prison last year, should spur reforms inside the federal prison system, which was hit with a hiring freeze in the beginning of the Trump administration. That freeze has since been lifted, but union officials say MCC and many other facilities are straining under the long-term effects of not having enough employees to operate effectively.
In a speech last week, Barr decried what he called a “failure” of Bureau of Prisons personnel to keep Epstein secure. Speaking to law enforcement officials in New Orleans, Barr said he “was appalled … and, frankly, angry” to learn of Epstein’s apparent suicide.
“We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and demand a thorough investigation,” he said.
On Friday, the New York City Chief Medical Examiner, Barbara Sampson, ruled that Epstein died as a result of suicide by hanging.
The 66-year-old was found in his cell early on the morning of Aug. 10. An official said he hanged himself with a bedsheet attached to the top of a bunk bed. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“After careful review of all investigative information, including complete autopsy findings, the determination on the death of Jeffrey Epstein is below — Cause: Hanging. Manner: Suicide,” Sampson said in a short statement. She did not offer details of the evidence that led her to that conclusion.
Epstein’s lawyers said they did not accept the medical examiner’s findings, and said they would conduct their own “independent and complete investigation into the circumstances and cause of Mr. Epstein’s death.
The lawyers, Martin Weinberg, Reid Weingarten and Michael Miller, said they were prepared to sue the government for access to any security video from the time of his death.
Epstein had been held at the detention facility in Lower Manhattan since his arrest July 6 on sex trafficking charges. He was accused of abusing numerous teenage girls over several years in the early 2000s and had pleaded not guilty.
The FBI and the Justice Department inspector general are investigating how suspected missteps by Bureau of Prisons personnel may have contributed to Epstein’s death.
People familiar with the investigations have said that Epstein was left alone in a cell and that guards failed to check on him for several hours leading up to his death, after officials had given explicit instructions for him not to be left alone and for guards to check on him every 30 minutes.
Those precautions were in place partly because of an apparent suicide attempt July 23, though the specifics of that incident have been debated and officials say it is still under examination.
After that incident, when staff at the detention center found light markings on Epstein’s neck, officials placed him on suicide watch for about a week before returning him to the special housing unit, where prisoners get more scrutiny and security.
Less than two weeks later, he was dead, leading to frenzied speculation, including from President Trump, about who might have wanted to harm Epstein, and whether he possessed compromising information about others. The jet-setting financier once boasted high-powered connections to political figures, including Trump and former president Bill Clinton.