Prison officials found notorious mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger dead in his cell in West Virginia last week, the apparent victim of a prison murder. Some pronounced this a fitting end to the saga of a man whom many blame for innumerable grisly deaths. We cannot share in their satisfaction.
Whether because of the mythology told in prison movies or hardhearted attitudes toward the convicted, American society still accepts torture as the expected, even excusable, consequence of incarceration. Beatings, shivvings, rapes and prison murder are the subject of jokes, not outrage at the carnage taking place in government-run institutions. Bulger appears to have been beaten to death, with some particularly gruesome details that remain unconfirmed, in what could be a mafia-related hit.
Violent, uncontrolled inmates are not the only problem in U.S. prisons. Prison staff are sometimes the torturers. Too many inmates are still locked away in solitary confinement in tiny cells for 23 hours per day. Ask anyone who has been through this mental and emotional hell: It is a misery that should be reserved for exceptional cases that require a prisoner’s removal from the prison population. It is reasonable to demand that prison officials both maintain order and refrain from extreme punishments more at home in a police state.
A failure to maintain order appears to have been the particular problem at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton, the federal facility to which Bulger, 89, had been recently moved. According to an account in the New York Times, inmates’ cells were opened at 6 a.m. to allow them to go to breakfast, two hours before guards would make their rounds. When Bulger failed to leave his cell, prison staff inquired and found him dead and bloody.
Many of the details remain sketchy — and there are plenty of questions the Bureau of Prisons has yet to answer. Is a pressing lack of federal prison guards responsible for lax oversight at Hazelton? Did prison staff take extra care to ensure Bulger’s safety, given that he had a history of cooperating with the FBI? Why did he end up at Hazelton, rather than a Bureau of Prisons medical facility, given his advanced age and numerous heart attacks? How, anyway, could an inmate be beaten to death in a maximum-security cell?
It is all too easy to dismiss these questions as unnecessary because Bulger was an evil man. Yet his death was not justice but a betrayal of it. Bulger was sentenced to life in prison, not to death. The U.S. justice system is not always perfect in matching punishments to crimes. But the alternative is the justice of the mob — a ratification of Bulger’s life work rather than the repudiation it deserved.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST