Jeffrey Epstein, inmate 76318-054, hated his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It was cramped, dank and infested with vermin, so Mr. Epstein, long accustomed to using his wealth to play by his own rules, devised a way out.
He paid numerous lawyers to visit the jail for as many as 12 hours a day, giving him the right to see them in a private meeting room. Mr. Epstein was there for so long that he often appeared bored, sitting in silence with his lawyers, according to people who saw the meetings. While they were there, he and his entourage regularly emptied the two vending machines of drinks and snacks.
“It was shift work, all designed by someone who had infinite resources to try and get as much comfort as possible,” said a lawyer who was often in the jail visiting clients.
Outside the meeting room, Mr. Epstein mounted a strategy to avoid being preyed upon by other inmates: He deposited money in their commissary accounts, according to a consultant who is often in the jail and speaks regularly with inmates there.
The jail was a sharp departure from his formerly gilded life, which had included a private island in the Caribbean, a $56 million Manhattan mansion and a network of rich and powerful friends.
But in his final days, Mr. Epstein’s efforts to lessen the misery of incarceration seemed to be faltering.
He was seldom bathing, his hair and beard were unkempt and he was sleeping on the floor of his cell instead of on his bunk bed, according to people at the jail.
Still, he convinced the jail’s leadership that he was not a threat to himself, even though an inquiry was already underway into whether he had tried to commit suicide on July 23. The federal jail was so poorly managed and chronically short-staffed that workers who were not correctional officers were regularly pressed into guard duty.
On Aug. 9, lawyers crowded into the plastic chairs in the meeting room with Mr. Epstein as the world was riveted by news that a court had released a cache of previously sealed documents, providing disturbing details about the sex trafficking accusations against him.
A few hours later, on the overnight shift, only 18 workers were guarding a jail with roughly 750 inmates, according to records released by the Bureau of Prisons. Ten of the workers were on overtime.
One post was actually vacant, the records show.
On 9 South, the special unit where Mr. Epstein was housed, there were two guards, one of whom was a former correctional officer who had volunteered for duty.
By the next morning, Mr. Epstein, 66, was dead. At 6:30 a.m., at least one of the guards discovered him in his cell, unresponsive and tinged blue, after he had hanged himself with a jail bedsheet, a prison official and a law enforcement official said.
A worker hit an alarm he was carrying to alert the jail that there was an emergency, according to one prison official.
Radios called out, “Body alarm on South, body alarm on South.”
Staff cut the bedsheet holding Mr. Epstein and tried to administer CPR, according to two prison officials. But an hour later he was pronounced dead.
It is impossible to know why a person takes his own life. But an examination of Mr. Epstein’s last days by The New York Times, gathered from dozens of interviews with law enforcement officials, Bureau of Prisons employees, lawyers and others, suggests that Mr. Epstein’s death came after he started to realize the limits of his ability to deploy his wealth and privilege in the legal system.
The people who described their interactions with Mr. Epstein and the conditions in the jail almost all spoke only on condition of anonymity, in large part because Epstein’s death is now the subject of at least two major federal inquiries into the failure to closely monitor such a high-profile prisoner.
Mr. Epstein’s lawyers have not responded to questions about his time at the jail or whether they believe that he was not properly monitored. After his suicide, they issued a short statement.
“No one should die in jail,” they said.
Fearing jail, seeking a way out
Jeffrey Epstein feared life behind bars, according to people who knew him.
A few years ago, on the second floor of his Upper East Side mansion, he had a mural painted that shows a photorealistic prison scene, with barbed wire, correction officers and a guard station. Mr. Epstein himself is portrayed in the middle, and he told a visitor earlier this year that he wanted the mural to remind him of what could await him if he was not careful.
Mr. Epstein had successfully used his wealth to skirt punitive conditions in his 2008 brush with authorities in Florida, when his team of elite lawyers negotiated a much-criticized deal with federal prosecutors to allow him to plead guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution. In return, Mr. Epstein was shielded from federal sex-trafficking charges.
He served 13 months at the Palm Beach County stockade and was allowed to leave custody and work out of an office six days a week.
But this time was different.
After Mr. Epstein was arrested on July 6 on a new federal indictment, he ended up in a cell in the special housing unit in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a rust-colored fortress in Lower Manhattan where many of the inmates are awaiting trial on federal charges.
The jail has often held high-profile prisoners. Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, was housed there after two escapes from high-security Mexican prisons. Other inmates have included Bernard L. Madoff, who masterminded a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
It is notorious for miserable conditions, particularly in the higher-security units. Mr. Guzmán and the mob boss John Gotti, who were housed in the most secure wing, often complained (garnering little sympathy in response).
The staffing problems at the jail are emblematic of a larger shortage of correctional officers in federal jails and prisons across the country.
These facilities have been dealing with rising levels of violence and other safety problems as the Trump administration has curtailed hiring in its quest to shrink the government, according to an investigation by The New York Times last year.
Some prisons have been so pressed for guards that they have forced teachers, nurses, cooks and other support staff to step in. That can lead to security risks because the substitute workers are often less familiar with the inmate population than the regular guards and can miss cues indicating that trouble is brewing, The Times investigation found.
The wing where Mr. Epstein was housed, 9 South, is the less restrictive of the jail’s two most secure units, holding dozens of inmates, usually in groups of two in small cells.
There, he was allowed one hour of recreation per day and could shower every two to three days, according to prison officials. Aside from meetings with lawyers, his contact with the outside world was severely limited.
Beyond its isolation, the wing is infested with rodents and cockroaches, and inmates often have to navigate standing water — as well as urine and fecal matter — that spills from faulty plumbing, accounts from former inmates and lawyers said.
One lawyer said mice often eat his clients’ papers.
Mr. Epstein tried desperately to ingratiate himself with fellow inmates, the consultant who had spoken with inmates said. He had heard from two inmates that Mr. Epstein transferred money into at least three other inmates’ commissary accounts — an exercise often used in the jail to buy protection.
It was clear early on that Mr. Epstein was desperate to leave 9 South.
After his arrest, he asked a judge to release him on a substantial bond, pledging to put up his Manhattan mansion and his jet as collateral. He would hire round-the-clock security guards, he said, who would “virtually guarantee” that he would not flee.
The judge denied the request on July 18, and Mr. Epstein stayed in 9 South.
The possible suicide attempt
Five days later, Mr. Epstein was found unconscious in his cell, with marks on his neck.
His cellmate, Nicholas Tartaglione, a former suburban New York police officer accused of a quadruple homicide, summoned guards, and Mr. Epstein was revived, according to Mr. Tartaglione’s lawyer, Bruce Barket.
Prison officials investigated the incident as a suicide attempt, and Mr. Epstein was removed from 9 South and placed in the jail’s suicide prevention program.
Some workers and inmates were skeptical, according to prison officials and people who spoke with inmates in the wing. They questioned whether Mr. Epstein was faking his injury to gain sympathy from Judge Richard M. Berman, who was presiding over his case.
That skepticism grew when Mr. Epstein accused Mr. Tartaglione of assaulting him, an allegation Mr. Tartaglione denied and some guards doubted.
A prison official said that within the facility, Mr. Epstein’s story was seen as an attempt to avoid being put on suicide watch.
The jail’s warden, Lamine N’Diaye, told Judge Berman in a letter that the jail conducted an internal investigation into the July 23 incident, but did not say what the outcome of that investigation was. (Mr. N’Diaye was transferred out of the jail on Tuesday pending the investigation into Mr. Epstein’s death.)
The few comforts Mr. Epstein once had in 9 South disappeared on suicide watch.
Inmates there are housed alone in solitary rooms, naked except for a thick, heavy smock. Lights can be dimmed, but never turned off, and there are no bedsheets or materials that could be used for self-harm.
According to Bureau of Prisons policies, Mr. Epstein would have met on a daily basis with psychologists.
Six days later, on July 29, he was taken off suicide watch and returned to 9 South.
In the wake of his death, the decision by the jail’s leadership to end the suicide watch has sparked criticism from elected officials and some mental health professionals.
“Any case where someone had a proven or suspected serious suicide attempt, that would be unusual to within two to three weeks take them off suicide watch,” said Dr. Ziv Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist who frequently evaluates inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
But six current and former prison officials said it was not uncommon for an inmate to be taken off suicide watch after only a few days.
Mr. Epstein’s own lawyers believed that he was fine and lobbied to have him taken off suicide watch, according to someone familiar with the negotiations.
Suicide and aftermath
Three days after Mr. Epstein was formally removed from the 24-hour suicide watch, he received a visit from David Schoen, a lawyer whom he had consulted periodically over more than a decade.
Mr. Schoen said Mr. Epstein had sought the meeting through another lawyer and indicated to Mr. Schoen that he wanted him to join his legal team.
They conferred in the meeting room for roughly five hours, talking about legal issues and the case.
At one point, a therapist at the jail stopped by and asked Mr. Schoen to leave the room because she had to meet privately with Mr. Epstein.
The therapist told Mr. Schoen that her visit was part of the suicide protocol.
Mr. Epstein “said he was fine with it,” Mr. Schoen said. “She stayed max five minutes.”
When the session was finished, Mr. Schoen said he joked with Mr. Epstein and the therapist about how short it had been.
Mr. Schoen said that by the time the meeting ended, Mr. Epstein seemed excited about their working together on the case.
“One thing I can say for sure is when I left him he was very, very upbeat,” said Mr. Schoen, who never had the chance to join the team.
But in the days that followed, Mr. Epstein started appearing more haggard, according to lawyers and prison staff.
“He’s deprived of communication with third parties, looked disheveled, sleeping on the floor sometimes,” a lawyer said.
And Mr. Epstein’s penchant for meetings stretched an already thin staff to its limits. As an inmate in 9 South, Mr. Epstein required additional guards to take him to and from meeting rooms. He took frequent bathroom breaks, requiring guards to escort him.
Mr. Epstein spent his last day in 9 South the same way he spent nearly every other: sitting for hours with his lawyers. They had arrived early, according to a lawyer who visited the secure client meeting rooms that day, and Mr. Epstein was seen there until at least late afternoon.
Overnight, the two guards in 9 South should have checked on Mr. Epstein every 30 minutes, but they stopped around 3:30 a.m. Two prison officials said they fell asleep.
Both staff members were working overtime. One had volunteered, having already worked several tours of overtime that week. The other had been forced to work a 16-hour double shift. A prison official and a law enforcement official said the two guards falsified records to make it look like they had checked in on Mr. Epstein.
Mr. Epstein was housed in one of a handful of cells in 9 South where inmates could peer out of their small windows and down onto the staff members stationed at the guard desk, according to a prison official. He might have been able to see whether the guards were asleep, the official said.
The official autopsy results, announced by the medical examiner on Friday, showed that the cause of death was suicide by hanging. But that finding seemed to do little to quell the mystery of how Mr. Epstein was allowed to remain unsupervised on the night he killed himself.
The medical examiner’s findings did not placate Mr. Epstein’s lawyers.
“The defense team fully intends to conduct its own independent and complete investigation into the circumstances and cause of Mr. Epstein’s death,” they said in a statement. “We are not satisfied with the conclusions of the medical examiner.”
Days after Mr. Epstein’s body was found, there was little inside the jail to indicate the havoc his life — and death — had wrought. In 9 South, his cell remained unoccupied, but a flurry of lawyers representing other inmates rotated in and out of the meeting room he had only recently stopped using.
By late in the week, there was one small difference: The vending machines were full again.
Susan C. Beachy, Katie Benner, William K. Rashbaum, Ashley Southall and Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.