Bureaucratic incompetence and confusing policies contributed to the death of notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger less than 12 hours after officials transferred him from a prison in Florida to another in West Virginia, according to a report released Wednesday from the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Bulger, who used a wheelchair and had serious heart problems, died at the age of 89 in October 2018. He was found badly bludgeoned in his prison bed. Three people have been charged in connection with his death.
Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote in the report that he found no evidence that Bureau of Prisons staff intentionally tried to put Bulger in harm’s way, though the report does not serve as a criminal investigation.
Ultimately, the lengthy report found that there were missteps at every step of the transfer and that existing policies were confusing and failed to protect inmates. The inspector general recommended that at least six Bureau of Prisons employees be disciplined for their actions leading up to the killing of Bulger.
“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 reads. “We found that did not occur here, not because of 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.”
Bulger, the report found, should never have been transferred to U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia because it was not designated as a medical facility equipped to meet his significant needs.
The report also found emails and at least one phone record showing how Hazelton inmates discussed Bulger’s arrival before his transfer — even though it’s against policy to release this information for security reasons. All the while, many of staff members interviewed said they did not know who he was when he transferred so did not take any additional precautions.
“If i [sic] dont [sic] call you tomorrow than we are locked down for probably 30 days cause we got word whitey bulger [sic] is coming to the yard tonight,” one Hazelton inmate wrote to someone before Bulger had arrived.
Bulger’s reign as Boston’s most brutal gangster spanned three tumultuous decades. He was an FBI informant, recruited to snitch on his Mafia rivals, and he later landed on the bureau’s Most Wanted list after fleeing ahead of an impending grand jury indictment. During his time as a fugitive, Bulger prompted a congressional inquiry and inspired Hollywood villains. He spent more than 16 years on the run before he was arrested in California in 2011.
He served much of his sentence at U.S. Penitentiary Coleman II in Florida. But officials there wanted him transferred after he threatened a nurse. Because of that, the report said, he spent eight months in what could essentially be considered solitary confinement. Toward the end of his time at Coleman, he told a mental health worker during a suicide risk assessment that he had lost the will to live.
Officials, according to the report, failed to properly document his health issues when they filled out the paperwork to transfer him.
When Bulger filled out paperwork for the transfer, he said that he wanted to be in the general population instead of in solitary. He also said that he was not an FBI informant — something that was false and should have been caught by officials, the report said. Inmates reportedly knew of this and started calling him a “rat” for about an hour after he arrived.
While many prison staffers said they were unaware of Bulger’s history, one Hazelton manager requested that Bulger be assigned to his unit, even though there was “at least one other former organized crime associate in the unit.” The manager told the inspector general’s office that he felt he was best prepared and qualified to handle Bulger.
“He stated that no concerns ‘were expressed to me. None that I was aware of,’” the report read. “He further explained that the unit in which Bulger was placed was “one of the only units that had cell availability for non-gang affiliated white inmates.”
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) did not designate the Winter Hill Gang — which Bulger was notoriously associated with — as a gang. That meant Bulger’s transfer did not trigger the typical intelligence assessment reserved for gang members, which would have helped determine whether Bulger should have been separated from any inmates for safety reasons based on his gang affiliation.
The report noted that while there were two “associates,” of organized crime families at Hazelton at the time of Bulger’s transfer, none were affiliated with Massachusetts crime families or gang members.
Bulger’s death was one of several violent prisoner deaths at the facility that year, and the high-profile homicide drew increased scrutiny to Hazelton’s history of complaints about inadequate staffing and a lack of control. As a long-outed FBI-collaborator, Bulger had a target on his back, and his family believed he was “deliberately placed in harm’s way.”
His relatives filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Justice Department in 2020, asserting Bulger was “perhaps the most infamous and well-known inmate” since Al Capone and accusing officials of not sufficiently protecting him. A federal judge dismissed the suit earlier this year.