U.S. Prisons Chief Is Reassigned After Jeffrey Epstein’s Suicide in Jail

WASHINGTON — The acting director of the Bureau of Prisons was reassigned on Monday, Attorney General William P. Barr announced, the latest fallout over the suicide of the financier Jeffrey Epstein at a chronically understaffed federal jail.

Mr. Barr has said he was “appalled” by Mr. Epstein’s death on Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he was being held on federal sex trafficking charges after years of being dogged by accusations of sexually abusing girls.

Mr. Barr announced that the bureau’s acting director, Hugh Hurwitz, was being reassigned to run its re-entry services division and to help implement President Trump’s prison overhaul agenda. Mr. Barr named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who ran the prisons bureau from 1992 to 2003, to replace him.

The suicide of Mr. Epstein, 66, has put pressure on Mr. Barr to explain how such a high-profile defendant was left unsupervised long enough to hang himself. Guards doing morning rounds found Mr. Epstein, prison officials said, and he appeared to have tied a bedsheet to the top of a set of bunk beds, then knelt toward the floor with enough force to break bones in his neck. He had also tried to kill himself in late July, but prison workers had recommended 12 days before his death that he be removed from suicide watch.

The intense public interest in the case is also fueled by the Justice Department’s handling of an earlier sex trafficking investigation into Mr. Epstein that resulted in a non-prosecution deal, as well as by unfounded conspiracy theories about the financier’s powerful friends that blossomed in the days after he died.

Prosecutors in Manhattan said Mr. Epstein lured dozens of underage girls into giving him erotic massages and engaging in other sexual acts in the early 2000s at his mansions in Manhattan and in Palm Beach, Fla. The girls were paid hundreds of dollars in cash for the encounters and, once recruited, were asked to return several times, where they were abused again, according to court papers.

The tabloid-ready scandal has presented one of the first major challenges for Mr. Barr, one of President Trump’s most politically shrewd and influential cabinet members. Mr. Barr immediately ordered an investigation into Mr. Epstein’s death, one of four federal inquiries into the case, and has received multiple briefings a day from law enforcement officials as he has sought answers in the case.

He has also vowed to address the shortcomings that Mr. Epstein’s death exposed at the Bureau of Prisons, which administers more than 120 facilities that hold more than 180,000 inmates. The bureau, one of the Justice Department’s most troubled components, is facing congressional and department scrutiny over staffing shortages, funding issues, workplace harassment, violence and gang activity.

Leadership issues have also plagued the bureau. Mr. Hurwitz began serving as the acting director in May 2018, when the previous director, Mark Inch, resigned after less than a year at the agency.

Mr. Inch was largely seen as a casualty of a feud between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, over criminal justice reform. Mr. Inch told Justice Department officials that he felt excluded from staffing and policy decisions made by Mr. Sessions and from the drafting of criminal justice overhaul legislation overseen by Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Barr and Ms. Sawyer have a history working together: He also named her to the post in 1992 during his own first stint as attorney general in 1992, when she became the first woman to run the bureau of prisons.