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Attorney General Barr Names A New Bureau Of Prisons Chief


We are still tracking the consequences of financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's death in custody. Yesterday, it was revealed Epstein signed a will days before his apparent suicide, and that could complicate lawsuits targeting his estate. Also yesterday, Attorney General William Barr ousted Hugh Hurwitz from his post as the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons. He'll be replaced by Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who previously served in that role from 1992 to 2003.

Joining me now is Catherine Linaweaver. She's the former warden of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan where Epstein died. She also worked with Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, and she's with us from Wichita, Kan. Welcome to the program.

CATHERINE LINAWEAVER: Good morning, David. It's good to be with you.

GREENE: Well, it's good to have you. Can you talk to us about Kathleen Hawk Sawyer? I know you worked for her. You've known her. What does she bring to the table in this job?

LINAWEAVER: Dr. Sawyer is a solid leader. She's known for her integrity, her no-nonsense way of leadership, was always seen as a visionary. She was the director of the Bureau of Prisons during our largest growth period to date, brought on thousands of new staff, many, many new facilities. She is just solid as they come.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about the job she's coming into. I mean, I think many of us are learning so much about the Bureau of Prisons through this moment - Epstein's apparent suicide. I mean, it seems to have highlighted some systemic problems. You said the agency is facing a perfect storm of challenges right now. What do you mean by that?

LINAWEAVER: Well, the federal government has a mandatory retirement age of 57. And in the year of 1990, it was our largest hiring year to date - 4,500 employees were hired. And subsequently throughout the '90s, as the bureau grew, many, many more were hired. Well, if you think about the age of those employees, they are all retiring in mass numbers. And we have been unable to hire behind them, either because of hiring freezes or lack of recruitment or just the sheer reason that millennials are not intrigued to go to work in corrections. So that's all what leads to this perfect storm that I've described.

GREENE: Well, what you're describing seems to be playing out at the Metropolitan Correctional Center - I mean, this prison that we've all been focusing on where you served as warden. The president of the union for federal corrections officers said that prison is currently functioning with fewer than 70% of the needed officers. How concerning is that?

LINAWEAVER: Well, first of all, you have to understand that in no agency in the government are you ever at 100% staff. You're usually funded at about 80%. And with your ins and outs, with transfers and hires and retires - you're usually doing pretty well if you're staffed at 80%. Seventy percent is a little low. I will have to agree with Mr. Young on that point.

GREENE: So let's talk about the prison. I mean, there have been reports that the guards watching Epstein were working extreme overtime, which I suppose could be a result of understaffing. Guards failed to check on him for three hours - I mean, reports of staff members falling asleep. How could something like this happen? Did that shock you as it as it did for many of us?

LINAWEAVER: Well, first of all, I hesitate to comment too much on it because I haven't seen the written after action report that definitively proves that that's the truth and not speculation. To speak in general, you know, thought process, could someone who is working a 16-hour shift - which means they've been mandated to stay an extra hour - could they fall asleep? Yes, they could. How - to have multiple people falling asleep, that's a stretch.

GREENE: So we have this moment with a change of leadership in the Bureau of Prisons. We've had all these concerns raised by Epstein's death. Make the link for me. How much control, how much influence can the bureau have on the issues that led to this happening?

LINAWEAVER: You know, you can't hold one person responsible. It is systemic. You know, you started the article out with the acting director, Hurwitz, being ousted. He was just in acting and he was doing the best job he could. One person cannot be responsible for all of this. Although I think Kathleen Hawk Sawyer is a great leader, it's going to be very difficult for one person to fix it. It's going to take hiring staff to get this done.

GREENE: Catherine Linaweaver is a former warden of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. Thanks so much for your time.

LINAWEAVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.