The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn is a twelve-storied concrete fortress on the waterfront of New York harbor. When water traffic is low, humpback whales swim through the harbor, feeding on schools of small, silvery menhaden. It’s a couple miles from the water’s edge to Ellis Island. The detention center possesses the cruel uniformity of a 1950s wedding cake, and houses over a thousand inmates on any given day, almost all of them awaiting trial for federal indictments. It is one of the largest federal detention centers in the United States, but lacks proper heating during the coldest months in the city, and is without adequate air conditioning in the summer. In an enormous system of dysfunctional federal facilities it is the largest and most dysfunctional. There are allegations of rape, racism, sexual misconduct, unsanitary conditions, abuse. People travel from all over the world to visit husbands, brothers and wives who are held here for months and years before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. While the building has an industrial, impersonal shape, its very purpose, to imprison human beings, means that it still looks different from the other buildings around it – like an unimaginative concrete leviathan.
Ghislaine Maxwell’s cell is small, ten feet by twelve feet. I have been in cells like this. It is like living in a closet, except you are often sharing that closet with two or four other inmates. Maxwell is alone in her cell. She is under constant closed-circuit surveillance. The guards come to check on her every fifteen minutes. This is uncommon. But then it is uncommon for a millionaire to be in a detention center. The historical, horrific truth of the carceral state is that our prisons are filled with poor people. Maxwell is a privileged person in an unprivileged place. Rarer still is that she is a female charged with a sex crime. Nearly all known sex offenders are male. In the detention center where I was held, all of the inmates charged with sex crimes were kept together. You can see the nightmare of this and at the same time understand why it might be necessary. They mostly kept me with other addicts. Jails are segregated, grouping people together by charges, by gender, by race. Women make up only about 4 –5 percent of sex crime convictions, and even then, a third of them are convicted alongside a male perpetrator. This doesn’t mean that women don’t commit sex crimes, but it does mean that women are rarely charged. The majority of the time female perpetrators are poor and uneducated, like most people who are convicted of crimes. A wealthy woman charged with a sex crime seems like an anomaly. Maybe this is part of the reason why, in a world filled with sexual predators, Maxwell’s case has gained such enormous attention. And then of course there are the men, the princes and presidents closely linked to her case, who have made the story so sensational. Punishing Maxwell might be a way for us to punish all of the men involved, too – men who might go entirely unpunished.
And punishment is the thing that we – our culture, our judicial system – has decided on as the primary solution to crime. As decades of American history continue to accumulate, the crime rates decrease and yet our prisons multiply, filled to capacity in nearly every state.
The language in a federal indictment has a way of wringing the emotion out of a crime, but also revealing how delicately our judicial system is put together, how complicated the burden of proof can sometimes be.
From at least in or about 1994, up to and including in or about 2004, in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere, GHISLAINE MAXWELL, the defendant, Jeffrey Epstein, and others known and unknown, willfully and knowingly did combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to commit an offense against the United States, to wit, transportation of minors, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2423(a).
Even though there are allegedly hundreds of victims, the indictment against Maxwell lists only four. She is accused of enticing each of these minor girls to engage in illegal sex acts. She is accused of grooming them, of using her influence as an older female figure to prime the girls for abuse. These four, all adults now, are the only ones the government has enough evidence to prosecute her for. Maxwell is also charged with perjury, during sworn testimony, about her interactions with the victims. The final charge, appended months after she was arrested, is sex trafficking. That now-so-common and chilling phrase has come to signify a vast underground system of conspiratorial abuse. In Maxwell’s case it primarily means that she stands accused of enticing the girls to travel to have sex with Jeffrey Epstein at his Upper East Side Beaux Arts townhouse, his 10,000-acre ranch in Stanley, New Mexico, his private Caribbean island villa, his house on El Brillo Way in Palm Beach and his apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris.
Maxwell grew up the youngest of nine siblings at Headington Hill Hall outside Oxford, a nearly 200-year-old mansion that also housed offices for the publishing company her father owned and operated. Robert Maxwell’s work and family life were precisely this inseparable. The mansion is a columned, architectural remnant of nineteenth-century Italian design, splattered with many windows and oak and marble – things you might expect from an English manor. It has fifty-three rooms. It’s a place that seems to encourage formality. Robert’s widow, Elisabeth Maxwell, writes in her autobiography, A Mind of My Own, that her and her children’s lives were in service to her husband’s needs, to his power and his media empire. He was a millionaire media mogul, originally of Czech Jewish origin, who’d fled the Holocaust (most of his family were killed) to become what some later described as an egocentric sadist. He was notorious for humiliating his employees, while at the same time defrauding millions of pounds from their pension funds. ‘[Robert] believed duty to him was more important than other demands from the family, that duty came before love,’ his daughter-in-law Pandora Maxwell once said. He prized obedience over human connection.
Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of Ghislaine’s most outspoken accusers, first met her at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, when Giuffre was sixteen years old. Before spending several years in various Florida foster homes, she was a runaway, and had already lived with Ron Eppinger, a 65-year-old sex offender and sex trafficker. Giuffre had just moved back in with her father, and they were both working at Mar-a-Lago. There is a kind of girl Maxwell looked for: vulnerable, unmoored, already sexualized. I was this kind of teenager. My parents, who had been together since they themselves were teens, separated when I was eleven years old. The sudden dissolution of the marriage launched them into a kind of flailing singledom, filled with the agonizing myopia of the poor and newly divorced. Being a gay child in the middle of nowhere, I turned in so many directions for approval. I had already been in multiple sexual relationships with adults by the time I ran away from home at fourteen. I longed for the attention of older men and women and saw my own sexualization by strange adults as a kind of love – a titillating, juvenile version
of intimacy. I had a boundaryless teenage life, one where I was sought out by deviant adults who pretended they wanted to care for me, while also assuring me that I was mature, that I was like them, even when I was not. This lie about maturity is something young people crave, that place between autonomy and validation. I wanted to be looked after, and yet also to be told I had power over my own body – a power I often lacked the development to consent to.
The age of consent is a fairly new concept in our culture. Into the early 1900s in the United States, it was between ten and thirteen years old. Delaware law said that a seven-year-old could give consent. It wasn’t until later in the twentieth century that states began to push the age restriction to sixteen, then eighteen. One can track the growing evolution of consent laws alongside child development theories. Childhood as an occasion, and children as a protected class, are recent discoveries. As modern psychology transformed the public understanding of children’s inner lives, we began to care for them in better ways. Only relatively recently have we started to value a child’s humanity over their usefulness, establishing child labor laws as commonplace. The United Nations didn’t adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child until 1989. We have arrived at this moment of global awareness around child sex trafficking not because there’s a sudden escalation of powerful men preying on young people, but because we have found a way to name something that’s been happening forever.
If the allegations are true, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell both exploited the awkward territory of adolescence, to victimize young girls who they knew were already a kind of victim. Perhaps they pretended that they were helping girls like this, giving them money, buying them clothes, taking them on trips, occasionally giving them a place to stay. As if meeting some of the girls’ primary needs entitled them to their bodies; as if providing for them gave them a right to abuse them. Perhaps Maxwell and Epstein wanted to live in a more lawless age of entitlement, evidenced most of all by Epstein’s unimaginable fantasy to populate his secluded New Mexico ranch with underage girls with whom he would conceive a colony of offspring. In other words, a self-perpetuating sex cult.
I know about being locked in a cell twenty-four hours a day for an indefinite period of time. I know about people who confuse morality for the small jolt of power they get when subjugating hundreds of desperate bodies. I know about waiting, and hiding, and what it feels like when the state is marshaling its resources to punish you. But I also know about systems of predation. I grew up in a charismatic Pentecostal church that claimed, above all else, it wanted to protect children from corruption, while at the same time the leaders of that church were abusing them, including members of my own family. There was an entire structure in place to deliver children to the pastor of our church for sexual abuse, and other systems in place to obfuscate and hide that abuse, much the same way that Epstein and Maxwell are alleged to have built a system to recruit vulnerable, troubled young girls.
But still. If we do not care about what happens to Maxwell, whom do we care about in the criminal justice system? Which criminals do we care about? If the government is going to exercise power over the bodies of its citizens, is it obliged to treat those bodies with dignity? What does it do to the people who work in these institutions, the people who run them, when they do not have to treat prisoners with decency? The prison system is an unending industrial machine. In my home state of Illinois there are twenty-eight operational correctional centers, employing more than 12,000 people. The annual budget for the Illinois Department of Corrections is 1.5 billion dollars. Capitalism, in this way, seems to inevitably lead to the commodification of people, especially vulnerable people.
From 1924 to 1950 Georgia Tann popularized the idea of adoption in the United States by taking children from poor single mothers and selling those children to the very rich. She sold children to Joan Crawford, Dick Powell and the then-governor of New York, Herbert Lehman. She profited from the sale of hundreds of children, and shaped an entire industry around it, laying the foundation for the system of adoption as we know it today. The families of the people she coerced and stole children from had little resources to fight back, but she was also able to continue the practice because she was operating with the notion, widespread in that era, that parents who lived in poverty weren’t as capable as parents who had money. She advertised the children as blank slates, tiny people who could be shaped into whatever ideal their new, affluent parents could imagine for them, because wealth made people better. She sold socialites on the idea of better welfare through wealth.
The blinding-white, multilevel superyacht Ghislaine Maxwell’s father was sailing when he died is 180 feet long, larger than any house I have ever lived in. The yacht was designed in 1986 by Jon Bannenberg, with a bright, sleek, symmetrical interior, and a flared bow whose bowsprit is like a giant needle piercing the air above the water. I have never been on a boat like this. The yacht is both open and private. A person must feel an immense kind of privacy at sea, out there alone on the water with no sign of the inhabited world. What must it have felt like to be a woman aboard a powerful ship in the 1980s and 90s, before the internet, before location satellites, to have seen the oceans of the world laid out like infinite gardens of glass around you in every direction, as if the water and the sky were the only things that existed other than yourself and the people aboard, most of whom were being paid to serve you? What is the story a yacht tells about what it means to be alive? Robert Maxwell named his yacht Lady Ghislaine. She was his youngest daughter. Robert Maxwell died on this boat, or near it, when he disappeared overboard into the Atlantic Ocean in 1991 while sailing off the coast of the Canary Islands. The day after his death the family flew to a nearby airport and made their way to the marina where the yacht was moored. According to one reporter traveling with the family, Ghislaine immediately began shredding documents on board.
On a yacht, you can see anything coming from miles and miles away. Even the laws are different at sea. It is a whole other kind of real estate. I once saw a picture of a prison boat that’s anchored off the shore of the East River in New York. It is only ten miles from where Ghislaine Maxwell is now, in her isolation cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn. The boat is a converted barge, a floating penitentiary that is several stories high and cost 160 million dollars. It’s meant to house the overflow from Rikers Island, allowing an increase in the city’s inmate population without having to build more prisons on land. No one wants to live next to a prison, so they put them at sea. In the late 1990s the boat was used as a prison for children.
By most reliable accounts, Robert Maxwell introduced Ghislaine to Jeffrey Epstein. Less than a year after her father’s death, she had moved in with Epstein and taken on the role of his personal assistant. In the wake of her father’s financial crimes, Ghislaine seemed to have offered herself to the service of Epstein, perhaps as a way to maintain the level of wealth that her father had built around her. But also, like her father, Epstein possessed a natural sense of entitlement about the world. Neither of them had come from wealth, and yet they both found a way to amass it in abundance with a kind of cold, sociopathic charisma, and often at the expense of those around them. Her knowledge of their crimes and her apparent willingness to assist them in those crimes bonded her to them. Her value seems defined by them. The inequality of power between the wealthy and the working class, between those who serve and those who are serviced, means that the predatory rich are often in a position to exploit the people around them. Jeffrey might have exploited Ghislaine, but it was an exploitation she would have been familiar with and willing to participate in.
It’s hard not to become an abolitionist after spending time in a correctional facility, seeing the marginalized people who end up there, the things that are done to them and the impact they have. But it’s the very kind of crime that Maxwell is accused of committing – the routine abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls – where it becomes most difficult to imagine a society that might collectively advocate for the absolute abolition of prisons. It’s the very subject some lawmakers conjure when they want to turn people away from vast criminal justice reform. Sexual crimes evoke a level of community fear and discomfort that denies the nuance we need to transform the role society plays in the creation of crime. But child abuse is a community problem. Sex trafficking is a community problem. We look for someone to blame when it happens, someone to focus all of the attention on, so that we can keep the problem confined. Incarceration is often a way to work around a more complicated issue, but do we want to punish or reform people who commit crimes? Which people do we deem worthy of reform, or capable of it?
I was once a teenager lured into a room by an adult. It is a hard thing to say now. Because at the time I thought, I am a young person having sex with adults because I am special. It is something that I do. It says something good about me that adults consider me a worthy object of desire. It means that I am noticeable. It means that I have power and influence over the world around me. But those are the thoughts of a child. Being an adult now, and a father, I know how very easy it is to not hurt children. As a child I did not know it was easy to not hurt someone. As a child I thought, Oh, it must be very hard for an adult to not have sex with a teenager, because adults are always trying to have sex with me. It was a terrible, uncomfortable room for a young person to be in. I was alone a lot. The word consent meant something very different to me then, because I did not know how to give it.
How does a room make a person who they are. How do the details add up to make a person think and behave a certain way. How does power or money change the way we care for ourselves and for other people? What might being in a prison cell for the rest of her life do to a person like Maxwell. Should we care? What will it make her? Or do we only care about stopping her from being a predator?
There was constant video surveillance in all of the homes where Epstein and Maxwell lived together. When children entered his house, all of their movements and actions were recorded, but also perhaps all of the things that were done to them. Several of Epstein’s victims have spoken about the camera systems, and the state purportedly collected some of this as evidence. So how must Ghislaine feel now, being constantly surveilled in a federal jail? Being kept in isolation means to be deprived of regular, natural feedback from the outside world. Is the state just enacting a version of the crime back on the perpetrator, beginning their punishment even before they’ve ever been convicted? How can we find justice for the victims without becoming culpable in the ongoing injustice of pretrial detention?
The architecture of a prison must age well. It must withstand thousands of people using it every day. Over here we have the permanent iron bench. Over here across from the bed we have the painted concrete wall. The message of the table in a detention center is durability. The message of the open toilet is function over privacy. There is no privacy in state-mandated communal living. Surveillance in a private estate is nearly the reverse of surveillance in a prison, because it inverts the relationship between well-being and power. Denying someone a sense of well-being is a way to have power over them. It seems that Epstein and Maxwell offered girls a version of well-being as an induction, and then renegotiated the terms in order to have control over them. What is the metaphor of the room? Of the house. Of the neighborhood. What does the house say about the neighborhood? What does the house say about the person?
What can the presence of someone like Maxwell teach us about the way we treat people in jails? What can seeing her in this environment, a brutal detention center, show us about the function of the space? There is humanity in thoughtful design, and empathy. Institutions often lack empathy, partly because they are not designed in service of the people who will spend their time there. The public housing project where I grew up has a lot in common with a detention facility. It is an easy transition in some ways from subsidized public housing to incarceration. Those of us who transition from one to the other don’t seem out of place there. Jail is a place that is designed to deny people privacy. The space is meant to be convenient for the jailer, and inconvenient for the jailed. What is the difference between the story of a room that is purely functional for many people, versus a room that is decorated and designed for the pleasure of one single individual?
Part of the story of crime and punishment is a story about access to privacy. Poor people are punished more often because they’re easier to see and catch. Class, race and education transform the way people interact with law enforcement, and their communities are policed in vastly different ways. Maxwell and Epstein would only have been able to perpetrate the many complicated crimes they are accused of because it took longer for them to be caught. They had so many secluded rooms, which they may have used to commit their crimes in every day for years and years. The exclusive addresses weren’t just beautiful real estate, they were secluded, and protected rather than policed. Maxwell and Epstein could flatter and seduce the very people who might charge them with crimes, because they had every opportunity to be alone in rooms with these people, because they were able to buy and create the kinds of rooms that those people would want to spend time in. Maxwell and Epstein used spaces to exert power over children, to manipulate the way they felt and behaved. They used the room to foreshadow what was possible in the room, first saying it would be a kind of massage parlor, by saying the girl in the room was a model. The room was an illusion before it was a crime scene.
It’s possible that Epstein was also grooming Maxwell, and that he was preying on her financial circumstances to make her beholden to him, a female adult who could put female teenagers at ease and within his reach. Her presence would have made the girls easier targets for assault, while putting them in situations that made him feel more entitled to their bodies because they had, after all, been paid to touch him. He wanted women in service positions so that he could attempt to expand the boundaries of that service. And Maxwell was another woman in his service.
In a different lifetime, the exact location of their first encounter might have been meaningless, but knowing what we know, it is hard not to give it meaning. The theater of obvious opulence that is Mar-a-Lago makes it easy to imagine someone like Epstein there, and Maxwell, while Giuffre sits in her work uniform – a polo shirt and khaki shorts – reading a book about massage therapy. Maxwell walks up to make small talk, to ask what she’s reading, like it’s an act of kindness, a guest talking to a staff member. How much money do you give a teenage girl to be alone in a room with a grown man who will inevitably attempt to coerce her into having sex, and not just with him but with his friends, who are also willing to give her money. Mar-a-Lago is a place that desperately wants you to see what it’s worth. The story it tells is simply the opposite of poverty. It bears a kind of gold-plated performance of privilege, an ostentatious signal of power and well-being. In this way it’s the perfect setting to coerce an at-risk teenager into sex with a grown man. What can the presence of someone like Giuffre teach us about the function of a place like this, about the gap between those who can buy a membership to Mar-a-Lago, and those who work there?
One of the most unsettling, detrimental aspects of being a young person in an intimate relationship with an adult was, for me, trying to navigate the overwhelming, stressful landscape of adult emotions. I was no match for them. I was a child, feeling the things a child feels. I was never going to be their equal, and they knew that, selected me for that very reason, because they wanted to have sex with someone who had less power than them, a teenager who looked up to them, who needed them, who would be under the influence of their experiences and inherent authority. It’s this imbalance of authority that makes it abuse. The same inequality of power that makes sex trafficking possible, that makes Maxwell’s alleged crimes possible, that makes incarceration possible. This is not so different from the philosophy of the institutionalized body that shapes the carceral state, that allows the prison system to exist at all, that allows the government to use its vast resources to commandeer our rights by criminalizing our suffering – our addictions, our poverty, our mental illnesses.
Photograph © Jan Banning / Panos Pictures