James "Whitey" Bulger, shown here in a 2011 mugshot, was killed less than 12 hours after he arrived at a federal prison in West Virginia.

 James "Whitey" Bulger, shown here in a 2011 mugshot, was killed less than 12 hours after he arrived at a federal prison in West Virginia. Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images

No Inmate Transfer ‘Should be Handled Like Bulger’s,” Federal Watchdog Says

The Justice Department’s inspector general issued a series of recommended reforms in response to the killing of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger just hours after a move to a new prison.

No inmate transfer within the federal prisons “should be handled like” that of notorious criminal and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger, who was violently killed shortly after arriving at a new facility in October 2018, according to a federal watchdog, who recommended several reforms. 

Bulger, then 89, was at a penitentiary in West Virginia not even 24 hours, after being transferred from a Bureau of Prisons facility in Florida when he was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead. Earlier this year three inmates were indicted with charges related to his death. The transfer, initiated due a disciplinary incident, took almost eight months during which his health declined. Following his death, questions arose about the transfer process, sparking an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

“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 Justice Department IG stated in a 99-page report issued on Wednesday. “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.” 

One of the IG’s main concerns was that BOP staff put Bulger, who was in a wheelchair and had a heart condition (for which doctors repeatedly recommended hospitalization and surgery), in a single cell in the a special housing unit in Coleman, Fla., for eight months while the agency “was bureaucratically struggling with deciding how to transfer him to a new facility, and then decided to transfer him to a new facility that provided a lower level of medical care than his prior facility without adequately considering certain aspects of his medical records.” 

The watchdog made 11 recommendations in response to its findings and concerns they raised about the agency overall. These include BOP should enhance its communication among staff who are involved in transfers; make sure written procedures for medical transfers are consistent; require periodic reviews of inmates’ medical care levels and bolster communication among clinicians involved in inmates’ medical decisions; establish procedures for assigning inmates to units in facilities (such as with security considerations). 

The IG also recommended BOP consider limiting how many BOP staff are alerted about an inmate's transfer, especially for high-risk and high-publicity ones.

“Due to BOP’s standard procedures, well over 100 BOP officials were made aware in advance of Bulger’s impending transfer to Hazelton, and that Hazelton personnel openly spoke about Bulger’s upcoming arrival in the presence of Hazelton inmates, which was contrary to BOP policy,” said the report. This “made it impossible for us to determine which BOP employees were responsible for these improper disclosures.” Also, in the days leading up to Bulger’s arrival, some news outlets reported, citing BOP’s inmate locator, that he was moved to the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center, so “the knowledge among Hazelton inmates of Bulger’s impending transfer subjected Bulger, due to his history, to enhanced risk of imminent harm upon his arrival at Hazelton.” 

Overall, “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,” said the IG. 

BOP agreed with all the recommendations and BOP Director Colette Peters wrote in her response to the report, “subsequent to the events described in this report, BOP initiated several improvements to its medical transfer system including improved communication between employees involved in the process, multiple trainings for personnel and technological advancements.”  

This report comes as Peters is in her first few months at the agency and is working to institute a series of reforms to address the staffing crisis, accountability and more.