First Person

Why federal prisons like the one where Epstein was held aren’t held accountable

August 20, 2019
Metropolitan Correctional Center. Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

When I awoke last Saturday morning to the news of Jeffrey Epstein’s death, I realized that the moment had come: the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), the federal prison where he died, was about to get its fifteen minutes of fame. As a freelance investigative reporter who frequently covers the prison system, I’d spent years trying to pitch stories about that facility, often without success. Last summer, I managed to publish an investigation into conditions at the MCC on the website Gothamist. The story documented that MCC was overcrowded and understaffed, plagued by vermin and overflowing toilets, dogged by allegations of corruption and abuse, and beset by an almost total lack of medical care. None of that got much attention at the time. But as soon as news of Epstein’s death started circulating, so did my piece. 

Of course, editorial interest ebbs and flows with the news cycle, and in the post-Obama era, perhaps more than ever, investigative reporting about (seemingly) non-Trump-related federal problems is a tough sell. But the almost total dearth of interest in MCC can be traced back  decades; it isn’t just a reflection of journalistic myopia that’s plagued the American media landscape under the current president. It’s also a reflection of the flawed metrics that newsrooms use to determine when jail and prison stories are “newsworthy.” 

ICYMI: NYT columnist on publishing Epstein interview conducted on background

A few factors contributed to the almost total lack of MCC coverage until Epstein’s death. First, MCC poses unique reporting challenges not seen on the local and state level. Everyone held on 10 South, the unit where El Chapo was incarcerated, is subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that prohibit them from communicating with almost anyone in the outside world except immediate family members and attorneys. The few individuals these prisoners are permitted to contact are prohibited by law from repeating anything they’ve heard, including to members of the media. That means it’s impossible to do any real-time reporting on conditions on the unit, except by drawing on descriptions included in legal filings. My Gothamist story included rare accounts from people who had spent time on the unit and had since been transferred elsewhere, but many editors wouldn’t have included these narratives, since they want to know what’s happening at the facility, not what happened there years prior. 

Given that people on 10 South are held in some of the most extreme conditions of isolated confinement in the country—before being convicted of a criminal offense—it seems shocking that 10 South hasn’t been more closely scrutinized. Rather than challenging SAMs as an infringement on press freedom, however, many outlets have seemingly acquiesced to the government’s conditions, by keeping the unit out of the limelight except when it comes to the most high-profile cases.

The lack of attention arises in part from the fact that newsrooms want to make political impact and influence powerful people. The story that categorically changed the national conversation when it came to Rikers, New York City’s infamously violent main jail, was a 2014 investigation by Jennifer Gonnerman for The New Yorker, which helped prompt a reporting renaissance on incarceration—on conditions at Rikers and at the state prisons north of the city. Rising media interest in prison conditions gave advocacy groups an opportunity to step in, attract more coverage, and push for change. Elected officials in New York’s City Council and state legislature took notice. The responses of elected officials led to more activist work, which led to more media coverage, and so on. The productive interplay among reporters, activists, and elected officials helped bring local jails and state prisons to the forefront of the national media landscape—an outcome totally absent from the discourse around prisons at the federal level. 

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There are no advocacy groups focused on improving conditions at federal prisons, in large part because there aren’t really any elected officials responsible for safeguarding these institutions. Congress is technically charged with overseeing the Bureau of Prisons, but Congress is busy. And because federal institutions hold individuals from across the country, federal prisoners don’t form a natural constituency, or represent a single newspaper readership. 

Finally, federal jails are mostly filled with people accused of committing serious crimes, while the criminal justice reporting that’s secured the widest readership has focused on those prisoners the public broadly views as sympathetic. Gonnerman’s story, for instance, was about a teenage boy wrongly accused of stealing a backpack, a petty crime of which he maintained his innocence. The stories of the men and women locked up at MCC, meanwhile, don’t easily pull at the public’s heartstrings. Some of them are charged with committing dangerous or even evil deeds—plotting a terrorist attack, running an international crime syndicate, trafficking young women for sex. Readers don’t immediately identify with these individuals, and that makes the stories risky for journalists to write and for editors to run—I know, because I report on the conditions faced by terrorism suspects in federal prison and have been heckled for doing so, even in liberal publications like The Nation. The problem isn’t that young men like Browder get written about, but that the success of “good kid” stories depend on and contribute to a moral economy that sorts incarcerated people into two categories: those who deserve humane conditions and coverage, and those who don’t.

Writing about “bad guys” isn’t easy. In June, I published a story about the force-feeding of convicted terrorists at another federal facility, the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. My primary source for the piece was Mohammad Salameh, who was found guilty of participating in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Reporting on the human rights violations he experienced posed unique narrative and ethical challenges. But it also sharpened the way I approach prison reporting, by forcing me to treat the morality of my main character as secondary to the moral obligation of those who oversee his incarceration. 

What Epstein endured during his short time at MCC—and what thousands of prisoners endured before him—is a matter of local and national importance. It’s a matter of questions and answers: what happened; who is to blame; and what state, federal, or international laws were broken in the process. And it’s a matter of how the federal government will be held accountable, even if the particular agents of change (or blame) have are not always obvious and immediate. 

ICYMI: After Jeffrey Epstein’s death, conspiracies—and journalism—flourish

Aviva Stahl is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written about prisons and national security issues for a broad array of outlets, including The New York Times, The Nation, The Guardian, and Gothamist. Follow her on Twitter @stahlidarity.