The Justice Department inspector general found that mismanagement, confusion, and incompetence by the US Bureau of Prisons led to the slaying of notorious South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was beaten to death by fellow inmates in 2018 less than 12 hours after his transfer to a federal penitentiary in West Virginia.
In a scathing 65-page report released Wednesday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz chronicled the behind-the-scenes decisions by prison authorities who orchestrated Bulger’s transfer to US Penitentiary Hazelton while failing to consider threats to his life from other inmates or evidence of his declining health.
Indeed, his pending transfer to Hazelton was such a poorly kept secret that inmates were already betting on how long he would survive inside a prison notorious for its violence, the inspector general found.
“The fact that the serious deficiencies we identified occurred in connection with a high-profile inmate like Bulger was especially concerning given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling such a high-profile inmate’s case,” the report said. “We found that did not occur here, not because of a malicious intent or failure to comply with BOP policy, but rather because of staff and management performance failures; bureaucratic incompetence; and flawed, confusing, and insufficient policies and procedures.”
The report faulted prison officials for keeping the 89-year-old Bulger, who was in a wheelchair and had a serious heart condition, in solitary confinement at a Florida prison for eight months prior to his transfer, quoting the longtime gangster as telling officials in September 2018 that “he had lost the will to live.”
The report said the isolation may have caused Bulger to insist on being placed in general population when he arrived at the US Penitentiary Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., the following month, instead of going to solitary confinement to protect him from other inmates.
Bulger was beaten to death by fellow inmates on the morning of Oct. 30, 2018, less than 12 hours after his arrival at Hazelton, where he was placed in general population alongside organized crime figures from Massachusetts who had a motive to harm him.
Bulger, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s to the 1990s, was publicly identified in the late 1990s as a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi.
A prison operations manager involved in Bulger’s transfer said he had no concerns about sending him to Hazelton because he did not view him as a “cooperator” since he hadn’t received a reduced sentence for his crimes. The manager instead viewed Bulger as “just another old gangster,” according to the inspector general’s report.
Yet, Bulger, who had been one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted before his capture in 2011 after 16 years on the run, had gained national notoriety through books, movies, and documentaries.
Before Bulger’s transfer, well over 100 prison employees were notified by e-mail that he was on his way to Hazelton and word spread quickly throughout the prison, according to the report. One inmate told inspectors that “both inmates and staff were speculating about — and inmates were betting money on — how long Bulger would stay alive at Hazelton.”
After Bulger’s arrival, according to the report, multiple inmates were “yelling” about Bulger being a “rat” for about an hour.
The investigation “did not find any evidence of any federal criminal violations” by prison officials, according to the report. But the inspector general made 11 recommendations for improvements by the Bureau of Prisons.
Attorney Hank Brennan, who represented Bulger at trial and now represents his family in a wrongful death suit against the government, called the inspector general’s report “a 99-page press release attempting to absolve numerous government agencies and employees of intentional wrongdoing.”
The report “masks the government’s responsibility in the brutal murder of an 89-year old, medically compromised, wheelchair-bound citizen, by shamelessly blaming poor management, bureaucratic incompetence and poorly drafted policies,” Brennan said in e-mail.
He said Bulger was left in solitary confinement for nine months “because someone with the power of a badge didn’t like him. They tortured him, abused him, deprived him of any human dignity because they could. And when they were done . . . they sent him to his death.”
Bulger’s family filed a lawsuit in US District Court in West Virginia accusing the government of causing his death by transferring him to Hazelton under questionable circumstances. In January, a judge dismissed the suit and the family has appealed.
In response to the report, the Bureau of Prisons director, Colette S. Peters, said the agency had already begun to implement many of the inspector general’s recommendations, including improving communication around transfers of inmates with medical conditions and additional personnel training.
In August, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, a Mafia enforcer from West Springfield who is serving a life sentence for two gangland murders, and Paul J. DeCologero, 48, of Lowell, were charged with repeatedly striking Bulger in the head, causing his death.
A third former inmate, Sean McKinnon, a Vermont native, was charged with serving as lookout during the brutal attack. All three men have pleaded not guilty to charges related to Bulger’s slaying and are awaiting trial.
The inspector general’s report identified numerous failings by prison officials in the months leading up to Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton.
While Bulger was at US Penitentiary Coleman II in Florida, he was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), or solitary confinement, in February 2018 after threatening a nurse who made him wait for attention and then recommended he go to the hospital after determining he had an irregular heartbeat, according to the report.
“You are treating me like a dog, doing all this to me,” Bulger allegedly told the nurse. “You will have your reckoning and will pay for this. I know people and my word is good.”
Bulger, who denied making the threats, was kept in solitary confinement for eight months as prison officials tried to get him transferred to another facility. Even though his health declined and he suffered numerous heart attacks, prison officials changed his medical classification, claiming his health had dramatically improved, paving the way for his transfer to Hazelton, which provided fewer medical services.
Bulger’s primary care physician at the Florida prison said he believed Bulger’s classification should remain the same, but his supervisor told him to reclassify his status because he had stopped taking medication for a heart condition, according to the inspector general.
But the supervisor told investigators that he didn’t recall suggesting a change in Bulger’s status and believed he was “a ticking bomb, clinically speaking because of his cardiac issues,” the report added.
During a mental health screening in the summer of 2018, Bulger said he had suffered eight heart attacks while in solitary and wanted to be transferred to a federal prison medical center. The report said Bulger said he was “concerned about his health noting he does not want to die in SHU.”
Bulger “proclaimed that he had lost the will to live” during his months in solitary. “I have no quality of life. My health is gone. I get chest pains when I eat. Chest pains when I lay down. I feel lethargic all the time. I have memory problems. I’m deteriorating.”
After arriving at Hazelton by bus at about 6 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2018, Bulger “seemed a little rattled,” but took nitroglycerin pills, which “seemed to calm him down,” according to the inspector general. During his intake screening, Bulger, who has denied being an informant, told Hazelton officials that he had no safety concerns and there was no reason to keep him out of general population, the report added.
An intake officer said he asked Bulger if he was sure he wanted to go into “the yard,” (a reference to general population), noting, “I saw the movie.”
He said Bulger told him, “Don’t believe everything you see.”
A correctional officer told investigators that while Bulger was being photographed, he said, “Who knows this might be my last picture,” according to the report. When she asked him why, he said, “I’m old and will not have too many more transfers in me.”