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Accused IMF chief settles in at notorious island prison

Dominique Strauss-Khan on suicide watch and held in single cell for his own protection

The luxury that he is accustomed to was already a fading memory yesterday for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, as he pondered his new circumstances at Rikers Island jail in New York City, where he must await the next steps in the sexual assault case against him.

Not that some privileges have not been afforded to Mr Strauss-Kahn who, at 62, has a globe-trotting pedigree that does not fit the profiles of most of the 14,000 inmates crammed into the prison awaiting court hearings.

While most of his jailmates sleep in 60-bed dormitories, he can at least be grateful that he was sent to the west facility of Rikers, where inmates have individual cells, 11ft by 13ft, with one window for natural light. It is designed to house inmates with communicable diseases, but the former French finance minister is there for his protection from other inmates.

After spending an "uneventful" first night at the facility, according to the New York Corrections Department, it emerged last night that Mr Strauss-Kahn had been placed on suicide watch. A law enforcement official and a union official confirmed the reports, adding that he had not tried to harm himself.

Mr Strauss-Kahn was denied bail by a Manhattan judge on Monday after prosecutors charged him with attempted rape related to an alleged assault on a maid at the Sofitel Hotel near Times Square at the weekend. Investigators were yesterday gathering evidence against Mr Strauss-Kahn, including findings of a forensic examination of his body. He is expected to appear in court again on Friday, when his lawyers will again ask for him to be bailed.

The fall from grace of Mr Strauss-Kahn continues to astound observers, not least in his native France where he had been considered a likely favourite in next year's presidential elections.

Officers with the New York and New Jersey Police Authority strode into the first-class cabin of a Paris-bound jetliner on Saturday afternoon just hours after the alleged incident in the hotel room. Mr Strauss-Kahn was arrested, handcuffed and taken off the aircraft.

In recent days it emerged that an employee who had a brief affair with Mr Strauss-Kahn warned the IMF about his behaviour towards women in a letter three years ago. Hungarian-born economist Piroska Nagy told the board that Mr Strauss-Kahn had used his influence as managing director to carry out the affair. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," she wrote.

Last night an IMF spokesperson said the IMF board had not been in touch with Mr Strauss-Kahn, but believed it would be important to do so "in due course". Only a few hours earlier, two IMF board members were reportedly seeking contact with Mr Strauss-Kahn to discuss whether or not he plans to remain in his post.

A source close to him was adamant yesterday that the IMF chief was bearing up in jail. "Dominique Strauss-Kahn is holding up remarkably well under the circumstances," the source said. "He has been gracious throughout this process. He is very grateful for the efforts of his entire legal team. Though he is unable to hear directly from his supporters in France, he knows the outpouring has been extraordinary and he is deeply moved."

Conversely, the lawyer for the hotel maid at the centre of the current case said yesterday that she feels "alone in the world" and is telling the truth. He said she is living through an "extraordinary" trauma.

Mr Strauss-Kahn is likely to be grateful for the solitary nature of his accommodations at Rikers, a grim collection of prison buildings spread across a small island near the end of one of the runways at La Guardia Airport. Last year a former prison guard there was himself sentenced to six years in prison for encouraging teenage inmates to beat others on his behalf if they displeased him. In February this year, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit related to an inmate who died at the hands of guards.

Beyond the walls of his cell, the world to which Mr Strauss-Kahn had been accustomed continued to crumble around him, notably with calls from two European ministers for his resignation from the IMF. "Considering the situation, that bail was denied, he has to figure out for himself that he is hurting the institution," said Maria Fekter, the Austrian finance minster.

Mr Strauss-Kahn will be allowed visitors. Among those expected at the prison yesterday was his wife, Anne Sinclair, who left Paris for New York on Monday.