In the parched rolling hills of Tallahassee, Florida, sits a rundown low-security federal women’s prison housing one of America’s most infamous convicts, Ghislaine Maxwell.
Black filth smeared on walls, rodent infestations, and sanitary products being used to plug leaks in dilapidated living quarters are a few of the issues recorded at Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee, according to a Justice Department watchdog report, seen by The Independent.
The former socialite – previously used to a life of opulent luxury – was moved to the squalid jail after being found guilty of recruiting and trafficking underage girls for disgraced billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2021 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In her trial, victims recounted how Maxwell had lured them to Epstein’s homes where they were abused. Judge Alison Nathan, who presided over the trial, said: “She [Maxwell] participated in some of the abuse. Her conduct was heinous and predatory.” She added that Maxwell had “normalised” the abuse committed by Epstein, who killed himself in prison in 2019 while awaiting trial.
During a series of harrowing impact statements read out at her sentencing, one victim said Maxwell and Epstein had “ruined lives”. Another said: “For a long time I wanted to erase from my mind the crimes that Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell committed against me … but I’ve had to acknowledge the long-lasting effects.”
The conditions in the prison holding Maxwell have been detailed by inspectors as she gears up to appeal her 20-year sentence next month.
Maxwell’s appeal will go before a three-judge panel in Manhattan on 12 March, as her lawyers contest her conviction on five charges of recruiting and grooming four underage girls for the late paedophile financier to abuse between 1994 and 2004.
Ahead of the court appearance, Maxwell’s brother Ian Maxwell told The Independent: “The American justice system and the court were biased against my sister and she didn’t get a fair trial. Her jury was not impartial: three of them had been sexually abused but did not disclose this, depriving the defence of the opportunity to challenge their selection as jurors. How could they fairly and dispassionately consider evidence in a sex abuse case?”
The US government has urged the appeals court to uphold her conviction, with prosecutors saying: “The government’s evidence at trial established that over the course of a decade, Maxwell facilitated and participated in the sexual abuse of multiple young girls.”
As prisoner 02879-509, Maxwell is understood to have been working in the prison library since arriving at FCI Tallahassee two years ago. She has also hosted etiquette classes for inmates.
Her day is also said to involve yoga classes held in a prison block and sleeping in dormitory-style accommodation that houses around 100 inmates per room in bunk beds.
Maxwell is reported to have earned the nickname “Prison Karen” after lodging hundreds of complaints since first being moved to the low-security jail, including over a lack of vegan food options.
A recent report by the US Office of the Inspector General revealed the “alarming” conditions which prisoners are subjected to, with inspectors uncovering “serious operational deficiencies” in an unannounced visit.
Inmates reported fear of reprisals if they complain to staff, with some accused of using discriminatory language and failing to enforce rules.
The report highlighted the prison’s food service and storage facilities, with vegetables found rotting in fridges and mouldy bread served to inmates. The cafeteria was found to contain broken stools with sharp edges which could be used as weapons, leaking windows, and scores of dead insects.
Food warehouses were found to contain “seriously unsanitary conditions”, including evidence of droppings by rodents who had chewed through boxes of food, bags of cereal infested with insects, and rusted and warped food containers.
“Due to the severity of the issues, we identified and the immediate risks they posed to inmate health, we informed FCI Tallahassee management of our observations,” the report said. “Within 24 hours of our notification, FCI Tallahassee staff removed large volumes of food from the storage warehouses.”
The prison – which was scored as “high risk” by the inspectorate – also suffers “serious issues with inmate search procedures”, inspectors warned, enabling contraband to be smuggled inside, including opioids and unpredictable synthetic cannabis substitutes.
And despite an inmate dying by suicide months earlier, staff reported failures by their colleagues to conduct rounds of the prison’s housing units, which the report warned increases the risk that inmates would attempt self-harm, engage in physical violence, or participate in other illicit behaviour such as drug use.
In addition to staff missing checks, the prison was found to “lack the number of cameras necessary to sufficiently observe staff and inmate activities”, with “many blind spots” creating opportunities for inmates to engage in inappropriate behaviour without detection.
Inspectors also found that some inmates were reluctant to report wrongdoing by fellow prisoners and staff “due to fear of reprisal”, as a result of a breakdown of trust between staff and the 746 inmates, 100 short of the jail’s capacity.
The report included allegations that inconsistencies in searches of prisoners led some inmates to feel staff who searched their property “were unfairly retaliating against them”, with a previous investigation alleging the use of insulting and derogatory terms by staff.
In particular, the report found that staff repeatedly misgendered transgender inmates despite Tallahassee housing the largest number of any Bureau of Prisons institution, with 119 at the time of inspection.
Management figures expressed fears that delays in staff misconduct investigations rendered the process “ineffective at enforcing standards of conduct” – with the 191 misconduct investigations open at the time of inspection against the prison’s 307 staff found to have been ongoing for an average of more than two years.
Concerns with living conditions in the female housing units were also raised. Roofs covering all five units are in need of replacement, inspectors said, with routine leaks having led to significant water intrusion which has damaged windows and walls.
According to the report, staff have had to be asked to avoid giving inmates beds directly affected by leaks, despite efforts by inmates and staff to patchwork repairs, including jamming sanitary products into the gaps of leaking windows.
Black mould was also found on walls and ceilings, which inmates said staff had attempted to cover with white paint ahead of an earlier visit by the Bureau of Prisons.
The communal bathrooms were also found to be of “serious concern” and causing a variety of sanitary issues. Inspectors found “inoperable showers with clogged shower drains, with a black substance pooling inside one shower, a shower that would flood the bathroom floor with water when in use, and a toilet that was inoperable”.
Problems with timely access to medication such as insulin were also identified, with the prison’s medical centre missing a third of its staff. Meanwhile, the lift linking the two floors of the health department was out of action – potentially delaying emergency responses – after the safety gate malfunctioned and a nurse fell through the open elevator shaft, sustaining serious injuries.