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DOJ watchdog finds ‘serious’ problems in handling of ‘Whitey’ Bulger prison transfer

Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- An investigation by the Justice Department's top watchdog uncovered "serious" failures in the Bureau of Prison's handling of the prison transfer of notorious mobster James "Whitey" Bulger prior to his murder in custody in 2018, a new report released Wednesday said.

Bulger was found dead in his prison cell just 12 hours after his arrival at the U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia after suffering brutal injuries to his head and face. Three inmates in the prison have been charged in connection with his murder and are awaiting trial.

The Justice Department's inspector general mounted a separate investigation into how the agency handled Bulger's transfer. While its report Wednesday said investigators did not find evidence of "malicious intent" or purposely improper behavior on the part of BOP officials, they identified numerous failures at multiple levels of the prison system as well as puzzling bureaucratic issues in how Bulger's transfer was allowed to go through.

"In our view, no BOP inmate's transfer, whether they are a notorious offender or a non-violent offender, should be handled like Bulger's transfer was handled in this instance," Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.

Bulger was 89 years old and in a wheelchair at the time of his transfer from the high security federal prison at USP Coleman II in Florida to USP Hazelton, where he was immediately placed within the general population despite his notoriety as one of New England's most sinister gangsters and previous history as an informant for the FBI.

Officials at USP Coleman began the process of seeking Bulger's transfer in early 2018 after he reportedly issued a threat against a nurse at the facility, which led to his placement in a single cell in Coleman's Special Housing Unit.

While Bulger was at the time designated as a 'level 3' medical care inmate due to his development of a heart condition while he was in federal custody, officials in BOP sought to downgrade his classification to make him eligible for placement at a higher number of other facilities, the report found.

Despite repeated efforts to reclassify Bulger as a 'level 2' medical care inmate, officials were instructed that Bulger's health situation warranted him remaining at 'level 3,' the report said. But officials at Coleman seemingly ignored the recommendation and omitted other key information about Bulger's health in their final transfer request before he was sent to Hazelton, a high-security level 2 care facility.

Investigators found that after Bulger's transfer was approved, more than 100 employees at BOP received notifications and multiple inmates at Hazelton began sending communications about the transfer making clear they were aware he was due to arrive. Investigators said they were unable to determine which particular BOP employees at the prison were responsible for improperly disclosing news of Bulger's transfer to inmates at Hazelton.

One alarming portion of the report found that a unit manager at Hazelton specifically requested Bulger be assigned to their unit even despite the fact that it housed another organized crime associate who would have familiarity with Bulger's history. When interviewed by the inspector general's office, the unit manager responded he was not a "gang expert" and was not aware of information "being discussed or put out" by others before Bulger arrived.

The inmate, Fotios Geas, was serving a life prison sentence on RICO charges and was associated with the Genovese Organized Crime Family and was one of the three individuals charged in Bulger's death.

Investigators also found additional issues with how officials at Hazelton assessed the risk of harm Bulger faced from other inmates upon his transfer to the facility. According to the repot, BOP policy did not require Bulger to undergo a risk assessment by a BOP officer prior to his transfer which -- if conducted, would have singled him out as likely ineligible for placement with the general population.

Bulger, who after 8 months in the single-cell Special Housing Unit at Coleman had reportedly started saying he had lost any will to live, also expressed a preference to be placed with the general population. Investigators also say he lied on an intake form that had asked whether he had ever been a member of a gang or if he provided cooperation to a law enforcement investigation.

Upon conclusion of their investigation the IG's office made 11 recommendations to the Bureau of Prisons for improvements to their policies, all of which the agency accepted.

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