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Does The BOP Shoulder Blame for Whitey Bulger’s Death?

Yesterday, news spread rather quickly that notorious Boston crime figure and FBI informant Whitey Bulger had been killed at USP Hazleton (WV). Over the last 24 hours, reports have trickled out concerning the nature and circumstances of Bulger’s death. According to The Boston Globe, Bulger was attacked “[w]ithin hours of his arrival” at Hazelton: “Two inmates were under investigation in the attack […] captured on video surveillance entering Bulger’s cell around 6 a.m., according to one of the people. It was about two hours later that Bulger was found beaten, with his eyes nearly gouged out, the people said.”

That other inmates would seek to do Bulger harm is no surprise given his well-publicized assistance to federal authorities over the years (i.e., status as a ‘snitch’). The question would seem to be: Why was he moved to USP Hazelton? and How would other inmates have gained access to his cell when he was apparently still in Admissions and Orientation (being received upon transfer to the prison)? According to The New York Times, Bulger had been moved repeatedly while in federal custody (from USP Tucson, where he reportedly “was stabbed by another inmate” to USP Coleman, where he reportedly “threatened a staff member”), as his health steadily worsened: “Mr. Bulger had suffered a series of heart attacks while in prison — more than half a dozen over the years.” Indeed, there are reports that not only did Bulger suffer from “deteriorating health and a heart condition,” but he was also “using a wheelchair.”

Recognizing that Bulger’s medical accommodation needs may not have risen to the level justifying placement at a Federal Medical Center (FMC), the BOP does operate geriatric units, including at FCC Terre Haute. However, rather than being sent to an FMC or to a geriatric unit, he was transferred to a high-security prison where, last year, the Times found there had been “275 violent episodes, including fights among inmates and major assaults on staff, an almost 15 percent increase from 2016.” Notably, “Mr. Bulger appears to have been at least the third inmate to die as a result of violence at the Hazelton prison this year.”

Bulger’s crimes being what they are, most outside his family and loved ones will not likely shed a tear over his passing. As a country, though, we should be asking why our federal correctional system cannot keep safe an 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound inmate in failing health and why prison violence, including deaths, appears to be on the rise.