Jeffrey Epstein

Justice Department Shakes Up Bureau of Prisons Leadership Following Jeffrey Epstein's Death

Criminal justice reformers say the federal prison system is in desperate need of more oversight.


Attorney General William Barr removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons today, nine days after billionaire Jeffrey Epstein died in a federal jail in Manhattan.

The Justice Department announced in a press release today that Barr is appointing Kathleen Hawk Sawyer as director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), replacing acting director Hugh Hurwitz, who will return to his former position as an assistant director.

Hawk Sawyer previously served as director from 1992 to 2003, overlapping with Barr's previous tenure as attorney general, from 1991 to 1993.

Epstein's alleged suicide has put the BOP, which holds roughly 177,000 inmates, under intense public scrutiny. Barr said in a speech last week that he was "appalled" by Epstein's death, and multiple federal agencies, as well as the House Judiciary Committee, are now investigating the matter.

As Reason reported, the dysfunction that the Justice Department has reportedly uncovered at the Metropolitan Correctional Center—guards reportedly fell asleep when they were supposed to be monitoring Epstein and falsified logs to cover it up—is commonplace and has been reported on by news outlets and watchdogs for years.

Chronic staff shortages have led to overworked BOP staff, and in some cases nurses and other auxiliary staff are forced to guard cell blocks.

"It shouldn't have taken the death of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein for the Attorney General to see that the BOP needs real oversight and has for quite some time," says Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, a criminal justice reform group. "While we're cautiously optimistic about these changes, we continue to call on Congress to exercise their authority to provide the oversight necessary for this entity, which is in dire need of systemic change."

The BOP has been without a permanent director since 2018. Former Army general Mark Inch was appointed to the position in 2017, but he only lasted nine months before stepping down. He was reportedly caught in a power struggle between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is also the president's son-in-law.