Death of Whitey Bulger reflects flaws in U.S. prison system

[TW: This piece contains discussion of violence and death.]

Known for murdering at least 11 people, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger Jr. ruled the Boston underworld for decades before he fled from imminent arrest in 1994. In 2011, he was finally captured in California and sentenced to two life sentences and five years for his crimes (The New York Times, “Whitey Bulger: The Capture of a Legend,” 2014). His long reign at the top of the criminal underworld was assisted by his status as an FBI informant, which allowed him to pass along information that damaged his criminal rivals while avoiding arrest himself.

Therefore, Bulger’s murder on Oct. 30, 2018, within hours of his transfer to U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia, was likely a long-awaited punishment for “snitching.” The main suspect in the murder is Fotios Geas, a Mafia hitman from Massachusetts with “a particular distaste for cooperators” (The New York Times, “Whitey Bulger’s Fatal Prison Beating: ‘He Was Unrecognizable,’” 10.31.2018). Bulger was 89 years old and confined to a wheelchair at the time of his death and could not have stood a chance against the men who bludgeoned him to death with padlocks wrapped in socks.

The world is not worse off after Bulger’s death. His reign of terror in Boston brought untold suffering to many families. But at the end of the day, he should not have been murdered. His death indicates an astounding level of negligence on the part of the officials entrusted with his life and reflects the serious safety concerns faced by prisoners in the United States.

The authorities and those higher up in the prison system have noticed numerous irregularities in Bulger’s transfer from a prison in Florida known as a safe haven for former police informants to a prison in West Virginia with a particularly violent reputation. Bulger’s death marked the third murder at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton this year.

Previously, West Virginia senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and three other lawmakers had sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons, admonished the April and September deaths at Hazelton and cited its failure to follow congressional directives to hire more full-time correctional officers (CNN, “‘Whitey’ Bulger was prison’s 3rd slain inmate this year, and lawmakers were warning about its violence,” 11.03.2018). Although the officials in charge of the transfer process knew about Bulger’s status and notoriety, the warden still chose to transfer him into U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton’s general population, where he was at acute risk.

“He would always be considered a target because of his criminal background, status as informant, and age. Never, ever, to be placed in general population status,” stated Bob Hood, a former federal Bureau of Prisons chief of internal affairs. “Personally, I would have placed an inmate like Bulger on protective custody status” (NBC News, “Ex-prison investigator: Moving Whitey Bulger to violent West Virginia pen a ‘death sentence,’” 11.06.2018).

The federal law enforcement in charge of Bulger failed to ensure his safety and effectively sentenced him to death. The Bulger case serves as a stark reminder of the high level of danger that American prisoners face. According to a 2016 article by Mother Jones, 19 percent of all male inmates in U.S. prisons said that they have been physically assaulted by other inmates, and 21 percent said that they have been assaulted by prison staff.

Not only that, between three percent and nine percent of male inmates reported that they have been sexually assaulted behind bars, which suggests that more than 180,000 current prisoners may have been victimized (Mother Jones, “What We Know About Violence in America’s Prisons,” 07.2016).

This lack of safety, as well as poor conditions, abysmal pay and racialized over-sentencing, ultimately contributed to the recent prison strike in 17 states across the United States (BBC, “US inmates nationwide strike to protest ‘modern slavery,’” 08.21.2018). In fact, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 665 prisoners in jail for every 100,000 people (Pew Research Center, “America’s incarceration rate is at a two-decade low,” 05.02.2018).

For a justice system to function properly, someone sentenced to jail should only suffer as much punishment as they have been sentenced to by a court of law. Even if the courts assign prisoners a less severe punishment, sentencing people to prison exposes them to significant risks of assault and murder. This disparity between the level of punishment mandated by the law, which in and of itself is often too harsh, and the actual severity of what prisoners must endure in a poorly run and exploitative penal system represents an indictment of the inhumanity of our current approach to criminal justice. Let the murder of Whitey Bulger remind us of how our criminal justice system fails the important task of safeguarding inmates’ most fundamental right to security.

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