Two federal workers who were on duty the night Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan jail were charged on Tuesday in connection with their alleged failure to check on him every half-hour.
The two federal Bureau of Prisons employees were expected to appear in United States District Court in Manhattan.
The charges are the first to arise from a criminal investigation into the death of Mr. Epstein, the disgraced financier who hanged himself at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
A person briefed on the case had said early on Tuesday that the two federal workers had already been arrested, but others involved in the case said later in the morning that the arrests had not yet been carried out and the two workers would be charged later in the day.
The indictment charged the workers, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, with making false records and conspiring to defraud the United States. Specifically, the indictment said the two workers failed to make their rounds to check on detainees and instead “sat at their desk, browsed the internet and moved around the common area.” Then they signed documents saying they had looked in inmates when they had not.
“The defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement. “Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction.”
Mr. Epstein, 66, had been in custody for more than a month when he was found dead on Aug. 10. New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled the death a suicide. Lawyers for Mr. Epstein have challenged that finding, and a forensic pathologist hired by Mr. Epstein’s family has claimed that “evidence points to homicide.”
The workers came under scrutiny shortly after Mr. Epstein’s death, because they were responsible for monitoring the high-security protective housing unit where Mr. Epstein, who had only recently been removed from a suicide watch was being held.
Rather than checking on Mr. Epstein every 30 minutes as they were supposed to, the workers fell asleep for hours and falsified records to cover up what they had done, according to several officials with knowledge of the matter.
Jose Rojas, an official in the prison workers’ union and a teacher at the Coleman prison complex in Sumter County, Fla., said that, although he did not condone falsifying records, the two prison staff members were being scapegoated for Mr. Epstein’s death.
Mr. Rojas said missing rounds and doctoring records was generally treated as a policy violation in the bureau, not as a criminal matter.
And, he said, there was blame to go around.
“There’s culpability at the top,” Mr. Rojas said. “They always try to blame the lowest person on the totem pole.”
Mr. Epstein had pleaded not guilty and was set to go on trial next year. If he had been convicted, he would have faced up to 45 years in prison.
Three weeks before his death, Mr. Epstein was found injured in his cell in what was then investigated as a possible suicide attempt. By the time of his death, Mr. Epstein had been taken off suicide watch but was supposed to have another inmate in his cell. The prison allowed him to be housed alone the day he died, Mr. Rojas said.
Additionally, the Manhattan jail had been short staffed for quite some time. On the night when Mr. Epstein died, both staff members were working overtime. One had volunteered to work, having already done several tours of overtime that week. The other had been forced to work a 16-hour double shift.
The staffing problems at the Manhattan 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 and other support staff to step in. That can lead to security risks because substitute workers are often less familiar with the inmate population than regular guards and can miss cues indicating that trouble is brewing, The Times’s investigation found.
That Mr. Epstein managed to kill himself while in federal custody was viewed as an embarrassment to the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department. The attorney general, William P., Barr, ordered an investigation into Mr. Epstein’s death.
On Tuesday, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said the F.B.I. was investigating whether prison workers and officials had broken any criminal statutes.
When asked if there was a widespread problem of Bureau of Prisons employees sleeping on the job, Ms. Sawyer said that there were “a few.” She added that the agency was trying to identify problem employees and that it was monitoring cameras to make sure that staff were adequately performing their jobs.
During the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, asked Ms. Sawyer if she agreed with the medical examiner’s finding that Mr. Epstein’s death was a suicide.
Ms. Sawyer, who was brought in to head the agency after Mr. Epstein’s death, said she had no evidence that refuted the medical examiner’s conclusion but that she was limited in what she could say about the case because of the ongoing investigation.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Katie Benner and Ali Watkins contributed reporting.