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AP Exclusive: Barr creating task force on prison misconduct

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo Attorney General William Barr speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington. Barr vowed in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, March 17, that there would be swift and severe action if a foreign government is behind disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fear in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic or a denial of service attack on the networks of the Department of Health and Human Services.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo Attorney General William Barr speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington. Barr vowed in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, March 17, that there would be swift and severe action if a foreign government is behind disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fear in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic or a denial of service attack on the networks of the Department of Health and Human Services. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Justice Department is creating a special task force to address criminal misconduct by federal Bureau of Prison officers at several correctional facilities after a loaded gun was found at the same jail where wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself, Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press.

In an interview with the AP, Barr said he was planning to establish the task force that would “have a very aggressive review of potential misconduct by correction officers in certain institutions around the country.”

Those facilities include the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, where Epstein killed himself last summer and where federal investigators found a loaded gun earlier this month. The gun's discovery followed a weeklong lockdown that turned up other contraband —including cellphones, narcotics and homemade weapons — and led to a criminal probe by prosecutors in Manhattan into guard misconduct focusing on the flow of contraband into the lockup.

The establishment of the task force comes as the nation’s jails and prisons are on high alert in response to the threat of the coronavirus, stepping up inmate screenings, sanitizing cells and canceling visitation at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the country. Correctional officers and other Bureau of Prisons staff members who work in facilities in areas considered hotspots for the coronavirus or at medical referral centers — which provide advanced care for inmates with chronic or acute medical conditions — are also undergoing enhanced health screenings, including having their temperature taken before they report for duty each day.

The ability to smuggle a gun into the Manhattan jail, which had been billed as one of the most secure in America, marked a massive breach of protocol and raised serious questions about the security practices in place at the Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for more than 175,000 federal inmates.

It was just the latest crisis at the jail, which houses a number of high-profile inmates, including attorney Michael Avenatti, who gained fame by representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving President Donald Trump. Federal prosecutors allege that the two correctional officers assigned to watch Epstein’s unit were snoozing and shopping on the internet when he took his own life in his cell in August, and later forged records to make it look like they checked in on him.

Barr named a new director earlier this month to take charge of the Bureau of Prisons, which has been the subject of intense scrutiny since Epstein took his own life while in custody in August. The agency has been plagued for years by serious misconduct, violence and staffing shortages so severe that guards often work overtime day after day or are forced to work mandatory double shifts.

Just this month, an inmate was killed by another prisoner inside a high-security federal prison in Illinois, four Bureau of Prisons officers were indicted for lying about three inmate deaths at a prison in North Carolina in 2019 and the Justice Department’s inspector general found a warden at another facility directed an acting warden not to report misconduct to internal affairs for a week, among other issues.

After Barr swore in Michael Carvajal as the new director of the Bureau of Prisons, the two met privately and Carvajal told him he wanted to “step up, substantially, enforcement efforts against correctional officers or managers who engage in wrongdoing,” the attorney general said.

Barr said he didn't believe there were systematic issues in the entire federal prison system, but he said officials need to focus on some facilities where they've uncovered problems.

Barr said with the leadership changes at the Bureau of Prisons, including the appointment of Carvajal and his immediate predecessor Kathleen Hawk-Sawyer, who remains at the agency as a senior adviser, he is “very optimistic we’ll be able to turn things around” at the agency.