Report | Failures Caused Bulger’s Prison Death


Whitey Bulger is taken from a Coast Guard helicopter to a waiting sheriff's vehicle after attending federal court in Boston. | Image by Stuart Cahill/Getty Images

A series of “failures” within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) precipitated the beating death of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger at the hands of fellow inmates at a West Virginia prison, according to a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). 

Inadequate medical evaluations, intelligence gaps about the gang Bulger once led, and widespread anticipation of his transfer from a Florida prison to the U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in October 2018 among prison staff and inmates contributed to his death, the report claimed.

Prison staff who worked at Hazelton, which had a “record of violence among inmates,” spoke publicly about Bulger’s impending arrival in front of inmates, violating BOP policy, the report said.

One Hazelton inmate at the time told the OIG that he knew of Bulger’s arrival at the site two weeks before his transfer and that the “entire prison knew” of his upcoming arrival.

That inmate said they heard BOP officers speaking freely of Bulger’s arrival as if they were “talking about a football game,” according to the report.

The report found that inmates at the West Virginia prison placed bets on how long Bulger would survive after being transferred there.

Inmates beat Bulger to death just hours after his arrival at Hazelton on October 29, 2018, at around 6 p.m. He was pronounced dead the next day at 9:04 a.m.

“Staff found Bulger unresponsive with no pulse, in his bunk, with visible injuries to his head and face, consistent with having been involved in a physical altercation,” the report said.

BOP officials pushed Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton after he allegedly caused trouble while incarcerated in U.S. Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. Bulger was accused of threatening a nurse at the Florida facility in 2018, prompting prison officials to place him in solitary confinement and initiate the transfer to Hazelton.

To facilitate the transfer, BOP officials downgraded Bulger’s medical status to meet Hazelton’s requirements, even though the 89-year-old used a wheelchair and had severe heart conditions, according to the report.

The report states that BOP officials failed to “accurately represent” Bulger’s serious ailments and went against a BOP medical director’s guidance based on Bulger’s medical record.

They “downplayed Bulger’s cardiac incidents,” the report alleged, and stated his chest pains were induced by anxiety. 

Those decisions ultimately cleared the way for Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton after three previous failed requests, the report claims.  

According to the report, Bureau officials also failed to take into account or were unaware of Bulger’s notoriety, despite his well-known history as an FBI informant. 

From the late 1970s through the early 90s, Bulger was the head of the Winter Hill Gang, a predominantly Irish mob that ran loan-sharking, gambling, and other operations. He served as an FBI informant, providing information on New England mobs at a time when bringing down organized crime was a top priority for the FBI.

He fled Boston in late 1994 after his FBI handler warned him he was about to be indicted. Bulger spent 16 years eluding capture before he was arrested in 2011 in Santa Monica, California. He was convicted in 2013 of 11 murders, as well as extortion and money laundering, and sentenced to life in prison.

Despite its notoriety, the Winter Hill Gang was not listed as a recognized organized crime unit in the BOP’s “Security Threat Group Roster.” 

One Bureau official told the OIG that “there was no information in BOP’s databases indicating that Bulger was a gang member or a law enforcement cooperator.”

The report is the latest black eye for the BOP, which has been under scrutiny after the deaths of several high-profile inmates in federal custody, including Bulger and Jeffrey Epstein, who died in his prison cell in 2019.

Since Bulger’s death, BOP officials have improved communications regarding medical transfers, training, and technology, the agency said in a statement in response to the report. 

The bureau said it might take more action but did not disclose whether any employees have been or would be disciplined.

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