WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position Monday, more than a week after millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life while in federal custody.
Hugh Hurwitz’s reassignment comes amid mounting evidence that guards at the chronically understaffed Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York abdicated their responsibility to keep the 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.
Barr named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the prison agency’s director from 1992 until 2003, to replace Hurwitz. Hurwitz is moving to a role as an assistant director in charge of the bureau’s reentry programs, where he will work with Barr on putting in place the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul.
The bureau has come under intense scrutiny since Epstein’s death, with lawmakers and Barr demanding answers about how Epstein was left unsupervised and able to take his own life on Aug. 10 while held at one of the most secure federal jails in America.
A statement from Barr gave no specific reason for the reassignment. But Barr said last week that officials had uncovered “serious irregularities” and was angry that staff members 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.
“This is a good start, but it’s not the end,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “Attorney General Barr did the right thing by removing the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and he ought to make every effort to prosecute every one of Epstein’s co-conspirators to the fullest extent of the law.”
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 several people familiar with the matter. Both guards were working overtime because of staffing shortages, the people said.
Multiple people familiar with operations at the jail say Epstein was taken off suicide watch about a week after he was found on his cell floor July 23 with bruises around his neck, and put back in a high-security housing unit where he was less closely monitored but still supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
Hurwitz is a longtime bureaucrat who joined the bureau in 1998. He had also served in the Education Department and 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 through 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. Lawmakers, 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, Hurwitz was responsible for overseeing 122 facilities, 37,000 staff members and about 184,000 inmates.
Hawk Sawyer was the first woman to lead the agency and held a number of jobs during nearly 27 years there. She worked as a psychologist at a federal correctional facility in West Virginia, served as an associate warden and then a warden at other facilities, and ultimately was nominated to lead the agency during Barr’s first stint as attorney general in the early 1990s.
“Under Dr. Hawk Sawyer’s previous tenure at the Bureau, she led the agency with excellence, innovation, and efficiency, receiving numerous awards for her outstanding leadership,” Barr said in a statement.
Barr also named Thomas Kane, a longtime bureau employee who has held a variety of leadership roles, as the deputy director. Kane worked at the agency from 1977 to 2018, under four attorneys general, and has previously served as the bureau’s acting director, chief of staff, assistant director and deputy director.
“During this critical juncture, I am confident Dr. Hawk Sawyer and Dr. Kane will lead BOP with the competence, skill, and resourcefulness they have embodied throughout their government careers,” Barr said.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.