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.
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