Congress

Ben Sasse presses prison bureau director on Jeffrey Epstein death, guards sleeping on the job

‘It’s about the fact that that bastard wasn’t able to testify against his other co-conspirators’

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the bureau on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On the day that two federal correctional officers were charged in connection with failing to properly monitor sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in a New York jail cell, Sen. Ben Sasse had particularly strong words for the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“As alleged, the defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement announcing the indictments.

The two officers were charged with falsifying records, as well as one count each of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who returned as the Bureau’s director in August after Epstein’s death in custody, testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was limited in what she could say because of ongoing FBI and inspector general inquiries.

But Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who has focused on the Epstein case, wanted very little of what Sawyer had to say about legal restrictions.

“With all due respect, you still have an obligation to speak to the girls who were raped by this guy, today,” Sasse said. “You may not speak about the specific of the charges against those two guards this morning that were taken into custody, but more broadly you should be able to unpack: Have we changed any processes about how cases like this are handled? It’s been more than 90 days.”

Sasse said that the agency responsible for the custody of federal inmates should be taking extra precautions when inmates who may be at risk of committing suicide are also potential witnesses in ongoing criminal investigations. That was true in the case of Epstein, who would assuredly have been called to testify against other individuals implicated in his sex-trafficking operation.

“This is different because it isn’t just about the individual inmate who might kill themselves,” Sasse said from the dais. “It’s about the fact that that bastard wasn’t able to testify against his other co-conspirators.”

“So, it is wrong as a management matter for you to say we treat everybody the same,” Sasse continued. “We should be treating people who are yet to testify against other felons, against other rapists, they have a lot more priority for your institution, don’t they?”

Sasse ultimately asked about the scope of the problem of federal prison guards and other officials sleeping while on duty.

“How widespread is the problem of sleeping on the job? There are lots of people in the public who think this seems a very convenient excuse, and so tell us: is it a systemic problem? Do we have a lot of people who sleep on the job when they’re supposed to be guarding federal inmates?” Sasse asked. 

“We have a few, sir,” Sawyer said. “We have been monitoring the cameras that are existing in every one of our institutions to determine how well and how effectively our inmates — I mean our staff members — are doing their rounds and counts in the institutions.”

Sawyer emphasized that the overwhelming majority of Federal Bureau of Prisons employees, totally more than 35,000, were diligent, but she was acutely aware that was not true of everyone.

“I’m encouraging that if people just chose not to do their job, we’re hoping the U.S. attorney’s office will pick up those cases and prosecute them for us, because we don’t those people in the Bureau of Prisons. They are dangerous to everybody, the inmates and the staff,” Sawyer said.

“No, if it’s a training problem, and they didn’t know what they were supposed to do, that’s our problem. That’s management’s problem. We have to do a better job training our staff,” Sawyer said. “But if someone is well-trained, well-experienced and chooses not to do their job, we want them gone.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.