More than 2½ years after James “Whitey” Bulger was beaten to death in his cell at a West Virginia prison, no one has been charged with his killing. Yet three inmates who came under scrutiny immediately after the attack have remained in solitary confinement since then, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with no end in sight.
Relatives of the prisoners, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, Paul J. DeCologero, and Sean McKinnon, say they are being denied “basic human rights” in the Special Housing Unit at US Penitentiary Hazelton as the investigation into Bulger’s Oct. 30, 2018, death drags on. They say the Bureau of Prisons has repeatedly denied the men’s requests to be transferred and won’t say how long they’ll remain there.
“If he’s going to get charged, charge him; if not, then he has the right to be transferred out of there,” Geas’s son, Alex, 26, of West Springfield, said during a telephone interview. “It’s like basically taking away every human right that you have. It’s inhumane.”
Geas, 54, a Mafia hitman from West Springfield serving a life sentence for two gangland murders, and DeCologero, 47, of Lowell, were quickly identified as suspects in Bulger’s slaying. They were captured on video surveillance entering Bulger’s cell about two hours before he was found dead, according to several people briefed on the attack. McKinnon, 35, was Geas’s roommate at the time.
“Until they formally charge him, then it’s just rumors,” Alex Geas said, adding that his father has a right to a fair trial and should not be left in limbo for years. “I think it’s kind of obvious they are trying to make things as hard as possible for him.”
DeCologero, a member of a North Shore organized crime group that robbed rival drug dealers and killed a teenage girl they feared might give them up, has five years left on a 25-year sentence. McKinnon, of Vermont, is serving an eight-year sentence for stealing a dozen guns and is scheduled to be released in July 2022.
The Special Housing Unit is commonly referred to as solitary confinement, where inmates are removed from the general population and placed in a cell alone or with another cellmate, with most rights taken away. Since being placed in such confinement, the three prisoners are kept in cement cells and let out for one hour a day, six days a week, for recreation; they stay in their cells on the seventh day. They are allowed two phone calls a month and have no access to television.
According to relatives, incoming letters are photocopied and sometimes delivered with half the page cut off. The men are given toilet paper rations that don’t last the week, and reading material is restricted, the relatives said.
“The only thing he has is a radio and for a while he was only getting bologna sandwiches,” Alex Geas said of his father.
DeCologero was finally given a radio about six months ago, according to a relative who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because of privacy concerns.
“He’s not seeing daylight on a daily basis,” said the relative, adding that he’s worried about the impact prolonged solitary confinement will have on DeCologero’s mental health. “He’s basically caged.”
McKinnon’s mother, Cheryl Prevost said she worries deeply about her son, who has ADHD and was recently hospitalized for an illness. She said her son told her prison officials claimed he was placed in solitary for his own protection, but he doesn’t believe that’s the case. She said her son was alone in a cell for a long time but is now sharing a cell with DeCologero in the solitary confinement unit.
“I don’t understand why they put both of them in together,” Prevost said. Her son has told her he doesn’t know anything about Bulger’s slaying and fears he’ll be kept in the unit until he finishes his sentence in 14 months, she said. He filed a grievance in January, requesting a hearing on his continued isolation and received a response from the warden saying there is “an ongoing investigation that is not able to be disclosed at this time,” she said.
Randolph J. Bernard, acting US attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, said in a statement that Bulger’s death remains under investigation and “no other information can be released at this time to protect the integrity of that investigation.”
The Bureau of Prisons, which makes decisions on the housing of inmates, did not respond to questions. In a lawsuit filed last year, Bulger’s family accused prison officials of causing the murder of Bulger, 89, by transferring him from a Florida prison to Hazelton, among the nation’s most violent prisons. Less than 12 hours after his arrival, he was beaten to death by fellow inmates with a padlock stuffed in a sock.
The former South Boston crime boss was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s to the 1990s. He had been publicly identified as a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi.
Prison officials transferred Bulger to Hazelton under questionable circumstances, indicating his health had improved even though he was in a wheelchair and had suffered numerous heart attacks. They placed him in the general prison population alongside Massachusetts organized crime figures, including Geas and DeCologero, which Bulger’s lawyer likened to a death sentence.
Cameron Lindsay, a former warden at three federal facilities, said investigations into prison homicides often take a long time. Since the suspects are already in custody, the cases are typically given lower priority. But in such a closely watched case, federal prosecutors may be trying to be particularly thorough, he said.
“You could argue Whitey Bulger was the Al Capone of our day,” Lindsay said. “It’s a high-profile case and they want to do it right.”
Yet criminal defense lawyers who have represented federal prisoners said it’s highly unusual that Geas, DeCologero, and McKinnon have been languishing in solitary without any official word on whether they are suspects. Prosecutors typically notify prisoners who are targets of an investigation early in the process, which allows the court to appoint an attorney for them, the lawyers said.
“Once targets are identified in a Bureau of Prison homicide investigation, ordinarily courts around the country have appointed qualified counsel to protect their interests, both on potential capital prosecutions and the conditions that they are living in,” said Mark Donatelli, a New Mexico lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases and has represented numerous defendants in prison homicides.
In cases in which prisoners potentially face the death penalty, they have the right to a lawyer before they are indicted so they are adequately represented and “steps are taken to protect them while the government is making a decision about whether to execute them,” Donatelli said. “Frequently [the defense lawyers] are able to assist the Justice Department in understanding why a capital prosecution is not necessary.”
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for 31 months violates the spirit of federal prison reforms initiated under President Obama that “specifically recognize that solitary confinement is exceedingly harmful and should be used as sparingly as possible.”
Under international human rights law, “prolonged” solitary confinement, lasting more than 15 days, is prohibited.
“It is beyond dispute that solitary confinement causes extreme pain and suffering and sometimes irreparable physical and psychological harm,” Fathi said. “Short of capital punishment, it is the most harmful thing we do to incarcerated people in this country.”
Geas’s attorney, Daniel D. Kelly of Springfield, said the Bureau of Prisons has refused to share any information about whether it is conducting periodic reviews of Geas’s placement in solitary, as required under its own regulations, or how long he may be kept there. When he asks prison officials to let him talk to Geas, it routinely takes them about a month to arrange a call, he said.
Geas wants to get out of solitary so he can have more than two phone calls a month with his children and read books, Kelly said.
“He’s not asking for steak dinners on Sundays,” he said. “He’s asking for the bare minimum.”