A Tale of Two Prisoners

Comparing the treatment of Jeffrey Epstein to Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner's murder, reveals the grotesque inequality at the heart of American society. There’s one set of rules for the rich, and an entirely different set for the poor.

Late Wednesday night, news broke that Jeffrey Epstein, the not-quite-billionaire alleged to have sexually assaulted and raped minors, was found sprawled out on the floor of his cell in Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), with marks on his neck. The injuries may be the result of a genuine suicide attempt or a staged one, a bid to be transferred to a facility more of his liking, perhaps something closer to the private wing he enjoyed in his brief incarceration after Trump’s now-disgraced labor secretary Alex Acosta, then a federal prosecutor in Florida, cut Epstein a sweetheart deal in 2007 (Acosta’s comment that he was told Epstein “belonged to intelligence” remains a mystery).

Or maybe another inmate was responsible for the injuries. WNBC-TV reported authorities had spoken to Nicholas Tartaglione, an ex-cop who may as well have been plucked from central casting for the role of hired hitman: Tartaglione is accused of killing four men and burying their bodies in his yard in Otisville, New York. While the facts about what happened in MCC continue to trickle out, questions of possible conspiracy abound. Were Epstein’s rich and powerful friends — Clinton, Trump, royalty, celebrities, and billionaires — in on the crimes? Did one of them put Tartaglione up to killing Epstein? (Tartaglione’s lawyer says, “Any insinuation that [Tartaglione] assaulted Mr. Epstein is a complete and utter fabrication.”) Or was Epstein just trying to cut his suffering short?

Whatever the answers, it’s hard to look away from the Epstein case — here it is, the rot at the heart of the ruling class garishly, sickeningly displayed; they protect one another, even if that means perpetuating the serial abuse of children. The masters of the universe are not only losers — they’re sexual predators. But away from the Epstein headlines, the flip side of this conspiracy, the reality of what happens beyond the sacred bonds of wealth, is playing out just a few hundred miles away.


Upstate, Ramsey Orta is in solitary confinement. He has been in custody since February 2015, less than a year after he filmed New York police officers kill his friend, Eric Garner, on July 17, 2014.

As Chloe Cooper Jones has reported, Orta says the police began harassing him the night of Garner’s death, showing up outside his home mere hours after his video provoked widespread outrage at Garner’s murder at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The day after Garner’s death was ruled a homicide — August 2, 2014 — Orta was arrested, on a gun charge. He posted bail and pled not guilty, but the cycle of retaliation was already in motion. When he was arrested again in February 2015, the police “stated they had months-old recordings of him selling drugs to an undercover cop.” They claimed they had Orta’s mother on film “aiding in the drug sales” and arrested her too. As Jones writes, “Orta was never shown the video and had initially wanted to fight the charges, but when the DA offered him a plea deal that included dropping all charges against his mother, he took it.” She notes what one cop told the New York Daily News at Orta’s arraignment: “He took the video, now we took the video.”

Orta’s years of incarceration consist of unrelenting torture, a vast conspiracy by officers to exact revenge on the person responsible for exposing the racist brutality of one of their own. Orta does not eat because he says has been poisoned by correctional officers (COs). Court documents back up this claim, revealing an incident in which Orta refused to eat food that, it turned out, was poisoned — his fellow prisoners who consumed the meal allegedly suffered “nausea, vomiting, pain, dizziness, aches, headaches, stomach/intestinal pains, dehydration, diarrhea, nosebleeds, throwing up blood, diarrhea with blood, and/or an overwhelming sense of illness.” Writes Jones, “Orta has reported constant abuse and harassment from correctional officers since he’s been locked up. He claims he’s been threatened, beaten, poisoned. He and Deja [his partner] both live in the constant fear that he’ll never return home.”

So Orta is gaunt, starving. He says he is “constantly ticketed by the COs for petty or falsified offenses.” Jones interviews Adriano De Gennaro of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society, who says it’s true, it seems Orta is being targeted. The effect of the conspiracy is “devastating.” He is denied all sorts of privileges and thrown into solitary. After Attorney General William Barr recently announced Officer Pantaleo won’t face federal charges for Garner’s death, Jones noted that Orta is again in solitary, and that this will likely push his release date back from December 2019 to July 2020.

A rich man serially assaults minors and the world conspires to protect him. His private plane is nicknamed the “Lolita Express” and no one cares. Money talks, so the world listens to Epstein — he befriends A-listers and world leaders. He buys an island and builds a temple; why not? He is omnipotent. As one critic recently wrote of Epstein’s class, “Like toddlers playing hide-and-seek, people who set themselves up for scandals behave as if they’re invisible while they operate in plain sight.” Their acts can’t be a crime; do you know who they are? Everyone is very smart and very charming.

It’s as if the world revolves around Epstein. When some of his victims demand justice, he is spared again — a light sentence, a private wing in a jail, work leave, and not long after his release, a return to glitz and glamor. A mansion on the Upper East Side: some say he bought it from his billionaire friend for $1. The Manhattan DA tries to reduce his sex-offender status (the judge denies the request. She has “never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this”). He keeps nude photos of “young-looking women” in the mansion. “Reckless,” people will say when they are uncovered in a police raid. Yet at some point, the protections he spent such good money on aren’t enough, and he is cast out. His victims, that journalist, were too determined. He is arrested, and the authorities deny him bail. They say he is a flight risk, with fake passports and attempted bribery of possible witnesses and all that wealth.

A poor man is born, and the world conspires to destroy him. Orta hurts his back at the Boys’ Club and becomes hooked on Vicodin at age nine. The Boys’ Club shuts down; he starts helping the Bloods with petty thefts. At thirteen years old, he is incarcerated at Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, “a facility so notorious for detainee abuse that it was forced to close forever in 2011.” He and his friend Eric Garner want to get something to eat, and his friend is murdered. Orta films it. He filmed the cops a lot — it felt like they were always in his neighborhood, always surveilling.

It’s as if everything is stacked against Orta. No matter how he behaves, he is ticketed by COs. Briefly, he is a hero, but then his support dwindles to a handful of people who cannot stop the abuse. He is being poisoned, he is being beaten. The authorities want him to kill himself. He knows it.

A rich man commits crimes, and it is almost impossible to believe he will face consequences. A poor man films a crime, and he is tortured. Very few people are surprised. Two men are behind bars in New York, on opposite sides of the class structure. If the Epstein case “were fiction, it would be both too sordid and too on-the-nose to be believable, like a season of True Detective penned by a doctrinaire Marxist,” writes Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times. Well, the doctrine exists for a reason.

“The only thing that gets you shunned in New York society is poverty,” says David Patrick Columbia, founder of New York Social Diary, of Epstein’s return to circles of power and prestige. “It is what it is,” says Deja, Orta’s partner.