At a West Virginia federal prison, a frail, wheelchair-dependent, 89-year-old inmate was beaten to death in his cell, allegedly by at least two other inmates. His eyes were dislodged from his head, his tongue was mutilated and he was beaten so severely that he was unrecognizable.
Families of James “Whitey” Bulger’s murder victims cheered the news of Bulger’s demise: “He died the way I hoped he always was going to die — I’m overwhelmed with joy — I’ll open up a champagne bottle and celebrate — The guy that did this, I would go put money in his canteen account.”
Bulger’s murderous reign of terror in South Boston has been the subject of books, movies and TV documentaries. While running his Irish gang, Bulger became a FBI informant on the New England Mafia, his gang’s biggest rival. For 16 years prior to his capture, Bulger was the FBI’s most wanted fugitive.
In June 2015, at a U.S. penitentiary in Florida, a corrections officer said he saw Bulger fondling himself in the privacy of his cell. Bulger claimed he was only applying medicated powder to an irritation on his genitals. Prison officials halted his commissary privileges for 120 days, confiscated his personal property for 30 days and placed him in solitary confinement for 30 days. I doubt such punishments would have been imposed on any other inmate in similar circumstances.
I also have questions about the breakdown in security that resulted in the killing of Bulger in his cell. Prison officials were derelict in their obligation to properly classify, supervise or protect an inmate at risk for harm by his enemies in the prison population.
Yes, Bulger managed to avoid accountability for his horrific crimes for too long. I can appreciate the anguish he created for the families and friends of the people he murdered. Bulger showed his victims no mercy, so why show any mercy to Bulger?
If the long overdue sentence of life imprisonment in a safe environment where his medical needs would be met seemed too lenient for Bulger, the fact remained that Bulger, like the rest of us, would still face spiritual judgment in the hereafter.
When a frail old man is beaten to death in a place that is supposed to provide maximum security — regardless of who that man is or what terrible things he did in his lifetime — then, to quote Shakespeare, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Bulger’s homicide was the third this year at the understaffed federal prison where Bulger was attacked. Violence between inmates, harassment and assaults committed by inmates against corrections staff, and abuse and unfair treatment of inmates by some corrections officers occur far too often at far too many prisons.
Had prison officials provided Bulger the protection he needed, the fatal assault could not have happened and the people directly responsible for Bulger’s death wouldn’t be in the terrible mess they are now in. If we can feel any compassion for Bulger, we can also feel compassion for the people who did to Bulger what Bulger did to others.
Bulger’s death is a tragic reminder of some of the grim realities of our prisons. His death should heighten society’s responsibility to operate penal institutions as places of safety for all inmates and employees, and as places for lawful punishment and rehabilitation of convicted felons. There should be no place for “cruel and unusual punishment” or for unforgiving vengeance in our criminal justice system.
Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, is a frequent Messenger Post contributor.