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“All Signals Blinking Red” at Federal Prison in West Virginia After DOJ Releases Report on Killing of Mobster “Whitey” Bulger

by Casey J. Bastian and Benjamin Tschirhart

Citing “bureaucratic incompetence,” as well as “flawed, confusing and insufficient” policies and procedures, a December 2022 report by a federal government watchdog attempted to answer the question: How did a notorious but elderly criminal end up transferred by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to a new prison where he was murdered within 12 hours?

Yet mystery shrouds James “Whitey” Bulger’s death at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Hazelton, West Virginia. The former Irish Mafia mob boss and leader of Boston’s “Winter Hill Gang” gained his nickname for his thick platinum hair and his notoriety for over 16 years spent as a fugitive on the FBI “most wanted” list. After his 2011 capture, Bulger was given two life sentences for crimes that included 11 murders.

In 2014, he was stabbed by another prisoner at USP Tucson. By 2018, he was 89 and confined at USP Coleman in Florida. His health seriously degraded in a series of cardiac events brought on by atrial fibrillation. After multiple hospital trips, he was left in a wheelchair, requiring frequent nursing care and daily medication. BOP classified him as Care Level Three on a four-level scale.

An altercation with a nurse ended with Bulger making threatening statements toward her, and staff placed him in segregation. Eight months passed. Bulger’s mental health suffered in isolation, and he reportedly lost his will to live. Staff began pushing for his transfer more urgently, but he was somehow improperly downgraded to Care Level Two.

That made him eligible for transfer to the more violent and dangerous USP Hazelton. Plagued with staffing shortages and violence among prisoners, the West Virginia lockup already housed multiple organized crime members. In another glaring error, BOP failed to note that Bulger was a member of an organized crime family, and that he had testified in court against former associates, making him a target for anyone affiliated with those organizations. Despite multiple books and films inspired by the mobster’s life and criminal career, BOP staff claimed to have no idea he faced increased risk.

Bulger arrived at USP Hazelton on October 29, 2018, and he was dead by 9:04 the next morning. Two other prisoners had entered Bulger’s cell at 6:19 a.m., after Bulger’s cellmate left. At 6:26 a.m., the two prisoners then left the cell, too. One hour later, the cellmate made a brief return to grab some property before exiting again. Staff then discovered Bulger, who’d been fatally beaten.

Three prisoners were charged in the killing. Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 56, and Paul J. DeCologero, 49, allegedly carried out the fatal beating. Geas’ cellmate, Sean McKinnon, 37, is accused of acting as lookout for the pair – who were also organized crime members from Boston, like Bulger.

The report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the federal Department of Justice dryly noted “serious job performance and management failures at multiple levels within the BOP.” But no staffers were implicated in any criminal behavior.

Bulger was placed in Unit F-1 at the specific request of the unit manager. During the OIG investigation, that manager claimed he made the request because “his staff was best suited to handle Bulger.” Incredibly, he also said he was unaware that Bulger had “rivals” in the unit – even though it housed “at least one” other prisoner with ties to Massachusetts organized crime. The unit manager shrugged that off, saying he was not a “gang expert.”

OIG admitted that Bulger’s death was “suspicious” and “raised concerns” about BOP’s handling of his transfer from USP Coleman. As an initial observation, the transfer to USP Hazelton “appeared unusual” because Bulger was old, infirm, and a notorious FBI informant. Also, Hazelton has an extensive “record of violence.” One interviewed prisoner said, “What would you think would happen to him?” Another said, “Seems he shouldn’t have walked the yard.” No staff admitted concerns. Hazelton’s Case Manager Coordinator, a top position in the transfer and intake processes at every facility, was quoted saying: “You know, how could we...have known?”

Bulger himself insisted on going into general population, staff said, adding that the 89-year-old was “eager” to do so. But staffers did not insist on protective custody for Bulger, who stated he did not want to go back to segregation again. During intake, Bulger ominously told Hazelton staff: “I got two life sentences. I want to go to the yard.” To the Correctional System Officer taking his photograph the prisoner added, “Who knows, this might be my last picture?”

The implication Bulger wanted to die suggests he wanted to take control of his incarceration. Or maybe it was a last effort to force BOP to answer for its deficiencies. If so, the consequences for BOP generally, or Hazelton staff specifically, appear nearly non-existent.

A second concern for OIG was the number of staff notified of Bulger’s transfer, which included “well over 100 BOP employees.” News outlets were also reporting Bulger’s movements. OIG said this made it impossible to determine how other prisoners had such knowledge of Bulger’s pendency.

The investigation reviewed multiple phone calls and emails from Hazelton prisoners. Most indicated that the whole prison population had gotten a “heads up” to Bulger’s arrival and believed the facility would be locked down soon after. Some prisoners were taking bets on how long Bulger would last in general population. Staff, too, “spoke openly” about whether Bulger could “stay alive at Hazelton.” A technician with Special Investigative Services – the internal police at a BOP lockup – said he was “sure the inmates knew because they know when everybody’s coming.” Conveniently, the same technician claimed it is impossible to figure out how prisoners acquire such information.

OIG noted it was unusual that Bulger’s care level was reduced just in time for transfer to a facility with less medical interventions available. At Care Level Three, Bulger “required clinical interventions” more than once per month. Care Level Two dictates interventions only once every “1 to 6 months.” Considering Bulger was not getting healthier as time passed, it begs the question how his care level was downgraded before he was be sent to Hazelton.

The report also contained 11 recommendations to address operational deficiencies that were identified. BOP promised to update its policies and procedures in several areas.

One recommendation was to improve the “medical care level” policy. OIG noted that an update to the Medical Care Level Guidelines and the Medical Classification Algorithm is necessary. Also, Bulger’s non-compliance with medical interventions allowed BOP to consider a decrease in care level – in other words, he was able to lower his own assessment by refusing some treatment. OIG advised that a policy update should take this into consideration.

BOP also said the number of employees with knowledge of a pending inmate transfer would be reduced, or at least standards of confidentiality would be improved. It was also recommended that prior to a unit manger’s request to supervise or house a high-profile prisoner such as Bulger, a higher-level administrator’s approval should be required.

A BOP spokesperson said the agency “appreciates the important work of the OIG and will be working closely with the office on future action and implementation efforts.” See: Investigation and Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Handling of the transfer of Inmate James “Whitey” Bulger, OIG (2022).

By January 2023, USP Hazelton had 72 vacant guard posts – 16% of the total – the most of any BOP prison. On a single shift on January 12, 2023, guards recovered 30 homemade knives from prisoners. Another dozen were found days later, along with body armor fashioned from rolled magazines.

“It’s now about self-preservation,” said guard Justin Tarovisky, President of Local 420 of the guards’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees. “Officers are calling in sick just to get a day off. When you add in this surge in weapons, all signals are blinking red.”

Additional sources: ABC News, CNN, NBC News, USA Today, WV News