Many people aren’t buying the official “suicide” story from the Manhattan Correctional Complex that housed financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on suicide watch until late July. Theories that Epstein was murdered to protect any number of political cabals are widespread on social media. President Trump has suggested that Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved and the Resistance is convinced that someone offed Epstein to protect the president.
That dead men tell no tales is a seductive explanation for Epstein’s expiration, but it ignores correctional reality. Epstein was vulnerable for reasons that have nothing to do with the ostensible secrets he might have kept on powerful people. Because he was convicted of sex crimes against children, Epstein was one of the most likely prison targets.
As former prisoners ourselves, we know violence and abuse in prisons aren’t always the result of supervisory vacuums. In fact, deaths of people accused of sex offenses are rarely accidental; they’re highly choreographed and implicitly endorsed executions.
No woman convicted of a sex crime has ever been killed, but they’ve been beaten, usually under the guise of another dispute. The same is not true in men’s prisons, where the ire directed at sex crimes can be fatal.
The Associated Press analyzed data on murders of sex offenders behind bars. Until 2007, reports of prisoner homicides didn’t include the crimes that incarcerated the victims, so, historically speaking, killing sex offenders might have been a bigger problem than we know.
The AP found that, in California, a third of all inmate homicides happen to sex offenders. That may not seem like much. But when you consider that the California corrections system is rife with gang warfare, the fact that one third of these victims were almost definitely not in gangs is telling.
Years ago, half of all inmates murdered in Maine’s prisons system were convicted of sex offenses. A quarter of Oklahoma’s inmate homicide victims in 10 years bore convictions for sex crimes. At a conservative estimate, 75 percent of murder victims in Nebraska prisons were sex offenders.
None of these statistics offends many people; safeguarding sex offenders is repugnant to most.
If, in theory, Epstein was murdered by another inmate (right now there’s no public evidence of that) we must use this opportunity to remind people that prisoners who’ve been convicted of sex offenses don’t deserve to be dispatched without due process. We’re not pleading for sympathy for people who cause sexual harm. Rather, we are pointing out that labeling them as subhuman has completely warped our understanding of crime and accountability. Murder is practically approved when it comes to this class of inmates. Twitter wove threads of glee at Epstein’s demise.
Prison administrators are often complicit with these homicides. When one inmate in the Tarrant County, Texas Jail killed his cellmate, a man convicted of sex crimes against children, an officer and two nurses watched the attack for 11 minutes before intervening. While investigators ferreted out and charged the inmates who assaulted guards and started fires in the 2015 Nebraska prison riot that left two men convicted of sex crimes dead, no one has solved the murder mysteries from those same events.
When prisoners are charged with violently taking the life of a sex offender, the public hails them as heroes as they did with Steven Sandison, a Michigan inmate who murdered his cellmate because of sex crimes he committed. Sandison had asked not to be housed with his victim because he knew he would kill him, yet authorities paired them up anyway.
We live in an era of exoneration, and that applies to sex crimes, too, although we don’t know how much. A study conducted by the Urban Institute that used DNA analysis to retest certain crimes found that, out of 422 convictions for sex crimes, subsequent forensic testing was inculpatory — supporting guilt — in only 187 cases, or 44 percent. That means that 56 percent of convictions of sexual assault might be attached to innocent people. Killing sex offenders isn’t just morally unjustifiable; sometimes it’s based on misinformation.
More than just the nature of sex crimes fuels the rage against people who’ve committed them, like the fact that police so often ignore and doubt complaints of these offenses. Out of 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators escape responsibility. Indeed, even Epstein received special treatment in being allowed to leave the Palm Beach County jail six days a week. Justice eludes sex-crime victims so often that we seek any form of answerability, even if it means supporting the commission of another violent crime.
Let’s not forget that there’s a middle road to take, one where we can administer accountability to people like Epstein and restoration to their victims, but also recognize our ethical obligation to protect life and refuse to celebrate an untimely death.
Chandra Bozelko and Ryan Lo both have been formerly incarcerated. Bozelko’s blog, Prison Diaries, has won two Webby Awards. Lo is the founder of UnLabeled Digital Media and a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow.