US attorney general William Barr has removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position more than a week after millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in federal custody.
Hugh Hurwitz’s reassignment comes amid mounting evidence that guards at the chronically understaffed Metropolitan Correctional Centre in New York abdicated their responsibility to keep 66-year-old Epstein from killing himself while he awaited trial on charges of sexually abusing teenage girls.
The FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general are investigating his death.
Mr Barr named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the prison agency’s director from 1992 to 2003, to replace Mr Hurwitz, who is moving to a role as a deputy in charge of the bureau’s re-entry programmes, where he will work with Mr Barr on the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul.
The bureau has come under intense scrutiny since Epstein’s death, with legislators and Mr Barr demanding answers about how he was left unsupervised and able to take his own life on August 10 while held at one of the most secure federal jails in America.
A statement from Mr Barr gave no specific reason for the reassignment, but he said last week that officials had uncovered “serious irregularities” and he was angry that staff at the jail had failed to “adequately secure this prisoner”.
He ordered the bureau last Tuesday to temporarily reassign the warden, Lamine N’Diaye, to a regional office and the two guards who were supposed to be watching Epstein were placed on administrative leave.
The guards on Epstein’s unit failed to check on him every half hour, as required, and are suspected of falsifying log entries to show they had, according to sources. Both guards were working overtime because of staffing shortages, the sources said.
Sources say Epstein was taken off the watch after about a week and put back in a high-security housing unit where he was less closely monitored, but was still supposed to be checked every 30 minutes.
Mr Hurwitz is a long-time bureaucrat who joined the bureau in 1998. He also served in the Education Department, the Food and Drug Administration and worked for Nasa’s office of inspector general. He returned to the prison agency in 2015 and was appointed acting director by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions in 2018.
He also weathered the death of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia in October, just after he was transferred there.
Legislators, advocates and even prison guards had been sounding the alarm about dangerous conditions there for years, but there has been no public indication that federal prison officials took any action to address the safety concerns. Bulger’s killing was the third at the facility within six months.
As director of the bureau, Mr Hurwitz was responsible for 122 facilities, 37,000 staff and about 184,000 inmates.