Justice in and out of jail: Jeffrey Epstein, prison violence, and toxic masculinity

Image shot in Manhattan, where Epstein was a long-time resident

Recently, Jeffrey Epstein was found unconscious in his New York jail cell, with injuries around his neck. So far, it’s unclear whether the wounds were self-inflicted or caused by one or more attackers.

We have a far-from-perfect justice system, exemplified constantly by wrongful convictions, often influenced by systemic racism, and the ability of the wealthy to buy their way out of legal ramifications for their illegal actions. Jeffrey Epstein has stolen headlines this past month in part because of how heinous his crimes were (a sex trafficking ring that included underaged girls) and the fact that only someone of his status could carry out crimes of such magnitude for as long as he did (it has been known since 2005 that he was soliciting and lending out girls as young as 14 for sexual acts).

But justice isn’t only served by a formal legal system. Both in and out of jail cells and prisons, there are myriad informal justice systems working all the time to shame people out of unwanted behavior or deliver discipline as direct consequence. When someone like Jeffrey Epstein finally sees the inside of a prison, you can almost hear the inner justice system licking its chops. Child abusers and rapists are infamously the victims of prison assaults and murders, making prisons and jails a rightfully terrifying place for anyone convicted of such crimes.

Epstein managed to avoid this for years. After the initial allegations surfaced in 2005, he assembled a supergroup of lawyers to help him get away with the heap of evidence that he was exploiting women and girls for sex and blackmail fodder against other high profile figures. In the end, he served only a 13-month sentence, in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Stockade, from which he was allowed to come and go nearly every day on “work release.” For the following several years, he settled lawsuit after lawsuit by paying off his victims as they gradually came forward with their stories.

Undeniably, there’s something satisfying about a man whose wealth and power have worked for him for most of his life, including in ways that directly exploit and harm the vulnerable, finally coming face to face with raw, physical consequences. No expensive lawyers to help him weasel his way out, no high connections to bribe. These sorts of informal justice systems may be terrifying to those who come to pay retribution in them, but for those looking in from the outside, it can be a relief that somewhere, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many firms and institutions you have connections with, or which high profile figures attend your parties. In the walls of a cell, beneath the pageantry of power and beyond the stratifications of social class, there is finally a place where privilege doesn’t matter — at least not in the same way it does in the outside world. Epstein is a greying and wrinkled 66-year-old man whose allegiances are finally dropping like flies. It’s hard to imagine him holding his own in a prison assault, or, known for owning the largest private residence in Manhattan, complete with heated sidewalk to melt away snow, even just in a prison.

Again, it’s entirely possible that Epstein’s wounds were self-inflicted, but whether he was the victim of prison violence himself doesn’t change the fact that countless men like him have been attacked or killed while serving prison sentences. People convicted of sex abuse, particularly against minors, are some of the most common victims of prison assault, and when we attempt to peel back the layers of what is really going on here, perhaps it’s not so simple as justice served. In a hierarchical system where the men at the top write the rules and are quick to dole out punishments to those they deem deserving, it’s hard to determine the extent to which assaulting a sex trafficker has to do with a conviction in his victims’ basic human right for agency and respect. The damsel in distress has always been a trope through which the superhero gets to take center stage to demonstrate his power and goodwill all at once, while the damsel herself remains a one-dimensional victim. Furthermore, it’s debatable whether this form of justice is really about justice at all, or about toxic male aggression finding an outlet on which to unleash itself. Sex abusers are far from the only victims of prison gang violence — some of the other most common victims include the young, weak, gay, or trans — so to celebrate the assault of a sex offender as a kind of feminist retribution seems misguided to say the least. When toxic masculinity, saviorism, and justice all conspire toward a common goal, the result is far more complex than a rightful desire to make evildoers pay.

That said, falling into some kind of celebration can be an understandable reaction. Rape and sexual assault are appallingly treated by our criminal justice system and society as a whole, and all too often, those who do have the courage to come forward with their stories are dragged through yet another assault of victim-blaming, accusations of lying, and ad hominem attacks, making the chance of a conviction against their attacker a questionable pursuit. Indeed, one does not need to be as wealthy as Jeffrey Epstein for attacks against women and girls to go largely unpunished. Informal systems often compensate for something lacking in formal social structure, and maybe that lack is the willingness to take seriously the issue of sexual crimes.

Finally, the rise and rule of prison gangs is a direct result of the failure of our criminal justice system to provide adequate living conditions and protection to inmates, leaving a vacuum of power and structure that naturally grew to be filled with the population’s own inner hierarchy, starting in the mid-1900s when mass incarceration rates in the United States soared and prisons struggled to keep up. If many of the victims of an imperfect criminal justice system are those who have been failed by society, they continue to be failed by the institutions that exploit their labor, treat them as subhuman, and offer few to no formal protections within their walls. Prison gangs, like all informal power structures, serve an important and necessary role, flaws notwithstanding.

Perhaps it’s fitting for the target of such aggression, if there needs to be one, to be someone like Jeffrey Epstein, whose crimes are heinous enough to have absolved most of popular society from sympathy for him. In a way, Epstein embodies a certain rags-to-riches American dream — a self-made millionaire who made his way to the top rungs of power — but he’s also a prime example of that dream becoming outdated, the reality unsavory and abusive. As younger generations in America increasingly embrace the pursuit of equality more than personal wealth and power, men like Jeffrey Epstein might find themselves finally toppling under the weight of a justice system attempting to balance its scales — even if perfect retribution remains elusive as ever.

Originally published at http://www.kimproc.com on July 27, 2019.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store