A review by the United States Department of Justice has found that a number of government missteps contributed to the murder of incarcerated Boston mobster and former FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger in 2018 after he was transferred to a high-security prison.
In an internal report released on Wednesday, the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said that “bureaucratic incompetence” surrounded Bulger’s transfer to a US penitentiary in West Virginia, where he was beaten to death within 24 hours of his arrival.
The report recommended disciplinary action for six US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) workers but did not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“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.
Bulger’s case is just one of the high-profile deaths that have led to scrutiny for the Bureau of Prisons. They include the death by suicide of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in federal custody in 2019. The agency has been accused of neglect, incompetence, staffing shortages and widespread allegations of sexual assault.
Before Bulger arrived in West Virginia, workers had already started to bring attention to the facility’s issues with violence and inadequate staffing.
Bulger lived a double life as a Boston mobster and FBI informant before fleeing Boston in 1994. He spent 16 years on the run before he was arrested in southern California at the age of 81, in connection to 11 murders and a number of other crimes.
In 2018, Bulger was transferred from a prison in Florida, where he had been housed alone, to a US penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia. Eighty-nine years old and bound to a wheelchair at the time of the transfer, he was placed in the prison’s general population and was beaten to death in his cell approximately 12 hours after his arrival.
The report sharply criticised the BOP for its handling of the transfer, noting that the agency had failed to take adequate preparatory measures for a prisoner of Bulger’s stature, and that missteps by the agency left Bulger vulnerable to rival gangsters at the new facility.
According to the report, BOP staffers spoke openly about Bulger’s transfer like they were “talking about a football game” in front of prisoners, who placed bets on how long he would survive.
The agency also tried to downgrade Bulger’s medical status to facilitate the transfer, despite the fact that he had a serious cardiac condition.
Three incarcerated people were indicted on felony charges for Bulger’s murder earlier this year.
His accused killer, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, is a former mafia hitman who was already serving a life sentence for the 2003 murders of Genovese crime family boss Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno and associate Gary Westerman.
In a statement released by the BOP, the agency said that prison officials have improved communications between workers on medical transfers and are adding more training and technology in response to the incident.
Bulger’s family has sued the BOP, stating that prison officials were aware that Bulger’s status as a “snitch” put him at heightened risk behind bars. The suit also alleged that Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton was so inappropriate that it appeared he had been “deliberately sent to his death”.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in January.