Serious mismanagement, “bureaucratic incompetence,” and bad policy contributed to the death of a former FBI’s Most Wanted fugitive.
According to a report from the Department of Justice Inspector General, the federal Bureau of Prisons grossly mishandled the transfer of former mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger from the Coleman federal prison in Florida to the Hazelton prison in West Virginia. Bulger, who was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1999 until his arrest in 2011, was murdered by three Hazleton inmates who allegedly knew of his arrival in advance.
“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 Inspector General’s office wrote. “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. In our view, no BOP inmate’s transfer, whether they are a notorious gangster or a non-violent offender, should be handled like Bulger’s transfer was handled in this instance.”
According to BOP records cited in the report, Bulger had suffered from atrial fibrilation since his arrest in 2011; he was regarded as a medical care level 3 inmate, requiring a high standard of medical care. But while bureaucrats within the BOP discussed his transfer, the then 89-year-old Bulger was kept in a cell by himself in a “Special Housing Unit” away from the general population for eight months. The IG report claimed that this placement led him to tell a psychologist during a Suicide Risk Assessment that he had “lost the will to live” and ask to be placed in the general population at Hazelton.
Furthermore, the final paperwork for his transfer went against the clear direction of the Bureau’s Chief of Health Programs, and placed him in a facility with a lower standard of medical care. Worse than that, the decision to lower his care level “was actually based on a plausible interpretation of BOP guidelines, and we therefore determined that the guidelines themselves were flawed and lacked clarity,” the report stated.
On top of the medical concerns, the IG report found that the Bureau of Prisons woefully mishandled the transfer itself.
Due to standard Bureau procedures, more than 100 officials were aware of Bulger’s transfer in advance. Hazleton personnel spoke openly about Bulger’s arrival, against BOP policy, which in turn led to a large number of inmates being aware of Bulger’s transfer before it even happened, exposing him to a risk of imminent harm, while making it impossible for the IG to identify which employees were responsible.
The BOP also did not take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of harm. Bureau policy did not require the transfer to be assessed by a “BOP Senior Intelligence Designator” beforehand. Several BOP employees told the Inspector General that they had no idea of Bulger’s notoriety, neither was his notoriety a consideration in decisions about his transfer.
The IG report did not conclude malicious intent, but the IG concluded that policies should be more considerate of security risks when transferring a high-profile inmate like Bulger.