The sprawling Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is one of the most opaque, tight-lipped, and slow-moving agencies in the entire federal government, and yet it sprang into action following the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, a mysterious billionaire who was rearrested in July on accusations of sex trafficking.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said he was "appalled" by the news that Epstein had died of an apparent suicide in a federal lockup in Manhattan. He also announced that the Justice Department had already uncovered "serious irregularities" at MCC New York, the jail where Epstein died.
The Bureau of Prisons has already reassigned the warden of the jail, and news outlets reported that guards who were supposed to be monitoring Epstein were literally sleeping on the job and falsifying jail logs to cover up their lapses.
The "serious irregularities" that the Justice Department suddenly uncovered are everyday occurrences within the BOP, and anyone who's bothered to pay attention to the federal prison system has known about them for years. The real irregularity is that the Justice Department is acknowledging the problems' existence.
USA Today reported last year on critical staff shortages at federal prisons that resulted in nurses and other auxiliary staff being pressed into guard duty. This January, congressional investigators released a report finding that serious misconduct at BOP is "largely tolerated or ignored altogether."
"Clusterfuck doesn't begin to describe the current state of the BOP, and it dates far beyond the Trump administration," David Safavian, deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's criminal justice reform center, told The Marshall Project this week. "Anyone who thinks BOP is a high performing organization has never been inside a federal prison."
Part of the problem is that the BOP is its own secretive fiefdom. It's incredibly hard for reporters, family members, and civil liberties groups to find out what goes on behind prison walls, much less hold officials accountable.
For example, Reason has been waiting since April for records from BOP regarding the death of several inmates at FCI Aliceville, a federal women's prison in Alabama. I received a tip from a mother whose incarcerated daughter sent her a message saying women there were dying due to medical neglect:
Today the 4th person died since I have been here. She died in medical at around 1 p.m. after sitting in medical complaining of chest pains since 8 a.m….. waiting to be seen…. My friend from my unit was in medical with her and described the lack of concern shown to this poor woman…. her family I pray learns the truth of how she died…. in the hallway slumped over in a wheelchair, until she fell out onto the floor dying, lying there with no one rushing over to assist her—praying for an ambulance that never came.
The BOP confirmed the names in three of these cases to me, but declined to provide any more information on the causes or circumstances of the deaths.
The family of Rick Turner is waiting for answers, too. Turner, a nonviolent drug offender, died in a maximum-security penitentiary in June. His family had begged BOP to relocate him, saying he feared for his life in the gang-ridden prison, and a member of Congress sent inquiries about his case, all to no avail.
I tried to get records on Turner's death, but BOP rejected my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, citing an ongoing investigation.
And for the last year, I've been trying to get to the bottom of what happened to Michael Monsivais, a former federal inmate who says correctional officers at FCI Lompoc, a federal prison complex in California, threw flashbang grenades on him and two other inmates while they were lying prone on the ground.
Monsivais, who was doing time for a drug offense, had a good reputation at Lompoc and had convinced the BOP bureaucracy, through years of tireless lobbying, to let him start an industry-certified vocational welding program for inmates.
On the night of June 21, 2017, a large fight broke out between two gangs at the prison. Monsivais wasn't anywhere near the fight. He was in a separate housing unit for the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). The RDAP is the only program through which federal inmates can reduce their sentences, and as such, the lucky ones who are accepted into it aren't looking for trouble.
In interviews and written statements, Monsivais and other former Lompoc inmates in the RDAP unit say that about an hour after the fight started, they were in their dorm getting ready for lights-out when they were ordered to stand by their bunks. They assumed they were about to be counted, but corrections officers yelled at everyone to get on the floor and, seconds later, threw flashbangs that landed on top of Monsivais' and another inmate.
"So two of these grenades exploded next to my leg and blew the sweats off the left side of my leg," Monsivais recalls. "And it burned me from my ankle all the way to my upper thigh, all the way down my left arm and parts of my left side."
"Blew his entire pants off," says Donald Konshuk, another former Lompoc inmate in the unit that night. "Burned his legs, shrapnel in his legs—him and a couple of other people that were right there."
Monsivais' bunk was the closest to the door, which is why he says he was hit. Ramon Daniel, another inmate in the RDAP unit, was assigned to the second closest bunk and says he was struck by two flashbang grenades.
"One of them landed by my left foot, blew up and broke my left toe," Daniel says. "I can not repair it—unrepairable. I went to the doctors, and they can't do anything about it. The next one fell on my right leg where it blew up. I had plastic balls in my legs that I removed two days later by myself because medical said, 'We don't have any time to give you any attention.'"
Monsivais was then thrown in the SHU—"special housing unit," a sanitized term for solitary confinement—for 71 days. He says he was told he was being investigated for his possible role in the fight, but he and other inmates believe it was to cover up what happened. His fellow inmates wrote statements in his defense, for all the good that did. When he was finally cleared and let out of the SHU, he had to start the nine-month RDAP program again from scratch, pushing back his release date.
Monsivais says the grievances he filed were all dismissed, which is typical. FOIA records obtained by HuffPost in 2017 show that a minuscule number of inmate complaints against BOP officials are sustained.
Other former Lompoc inmates from the RDAP dorm confirmed Monsivais' story but didn't want to give their names, as they were still in halfway houses and feared retaliation from BOP (All of the former inmates I spoke to said institutional retaliation is a fact of life in the federal prison system.
"Michael Monsivais, he got done dirty," one former Lompoc inmate says. "They did him wrong."
Monsivais and Daniel said prison officials took pictures of their injuries, but BOP has stonewalled attempts to get them. When Monsivais filed a FOIA request for records on the incident, BOP completely withheld 65 out of 67 pages of records. Monsivais gave me a privacy waiver so I could put in a request for his inmate files, but BOP withheld 97 pages in total from me.
I don't know if the pictures are hidden away in those pages, and without the photos, Monsivais has been unable to drum up much interest from reporters or civil rights lawyers in his case.
In the meantime, he's launching a nonprofit, No More Locked Doors, that will place formerly incarcerated people in union trade jobs like welding, but the night of June 21, 2017, still gnaws at him.
"I'm a very stubborn and persistent individual, and based on everything I accomplished over there, they should know that. But I guess they're making the bet that I'm going to just go away and get overwhelmed out here with life," he says. "What they did to us was wrong, and I believe it's something worth standing up for."
People reach out to reporters when the government fails them. I tried, but I haven't been able to prove yet whether Michael Monsivais was a victim of brutality, or whether a woman at FCI Aliceville died in a hallway waiting for someone to take her pleas seriously, or whether Rick Turner—a "kind, compassionate man" according to an email I received from a woman who worked with him at a children's hospital—was murdered just like he said he would be.
Meanwhile, Epstein's death, a giant embarrassment for the Justice Department, is being investigated by the Justice Department Inspector General, the FBI, and the House Judiciary Committee.
The Justice Department could investigate all these incidents, and who knows how many hundreds of others that go unreported within our prisons, and inform the American people. But apparently, you have to be a high-profile scandalous billionaire to get that kind of attention.