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    Medical classification change led to ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s prison transfer

    James “Whitey” Bulger in 2011.
    AFP/Getty Images
    James “Whitey” Bulger in 2011.

    Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s medical classification was suddenly and inexplicably changed to suggest his health had improved, leading to his transfer to the West Virginia prison where he was murdered last week, US Bureau of Prisons records show.

    Two organized crime figures from Massachusetts suspected of killing Bulger have been placed in isolation at the US Penitentiary Hazelton while federal investigators work to build a case against them. But investigators are also trying to figure out why Bulger, a frail 89-year-old who used a wheelchair, was transferred from the US Penitentiary Coleman II in Florida to a prison where he had access to more limited medical care despite his advancing age and declining health.

    A Bureau of Prisons official who is familiar with Bulger’s treatment said the Florida prison considered Bulger a nuisance and wanted to transfer him.

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    “They lowered his care level to get rid of him,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

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    That official said he did not believe the intent was to get Bulger killed. But he acknowledged that sending Bulger to Hazelton and immediately placing him in the general population was negligent and amounted to “a death penalty.”

    Sandy Parr, who works at a federal medical facility and is president of a union representing federal prison workers, said the Bureau of Prisons regularly changes medical classifications “even though they shouldn’t” to move troublesome inmates.

    Prison records reviewed by the Globe show that prison authorities deemed Bulger’s medical treatment was complete. But, Parr said, “no one with his [medical] history would ever have medical care completed.”

    A Bureau of Prisons spokesman on Tuesday declined to answer questions about why Bulger’s medical classification was changed, saying, “We are not releasing any information due to the ongoing investigation.”

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    But beyond Bulger’s classification being changed to allow his transfer to Hazelton, questions remain about why officials at Hazelton allowed Bulger to be placed in the prison’s general population, which included several organized crime figures from Massachusetts who would have been familiar with Bulger and might pose a danger to him.

    As the Globe reported last week, two of those figures, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hit man from West Springfield serving life for two gangland murders, and Paul J. DeCologero, who was part of a Mafia-aligned group who murdered and dismembered a 19-year-old Medford woman, are now suspects in Bulger’s murder.

    When Bulger was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for 11 murders, he had already suffered several heart attacks and was sent to “medical care Level 3” prisons, first in Arizona, then in Florida, that offered specialized care for “fragile” inmates who require frequent treatment.

    In April, Bulger could no longer walk when authorities at the Florida prison sought permission to transfer him to a federal medical center that provided round-the-clock care, according to prison records reviewed by the Globe.

    After that request was denied, authorities renewed their request to transfer Bulger in October -- only this time they claimed that his health had dramatically improved, the records show. He was reclassified as a Level 2 inmate with minimal medical needs, making him eligible for his transfer to Hazelton, a Level 2 medical care prison, where he was beaten to death by fellow inmates hours after his arrival.

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    During his last eight months at the Florida prison, Bulger had been held in the Special Housing Unit, or solitary confinement, after he threatened a prison staffer, records show. The prison official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Bulger told a female nurse, “Your day of reckoning is coming.”

    According to the records, Bulger was originally given 30 days in solitary for the infraction in February, but that confinement was extended three more times, stretching out over eight months.

    Parr, the union official, said she didn’t understand why Bulger was transferred for making a single threatening remark.

    “We don’t transfer inmates because of that. It’s common,” she said. “If there was an actual physical assault, we might do something. But for one verbal threat, and eight months in SHU, that doesn’t make sense.”

    By his own account in letters sent from prison, Bulger despised being in isolation. Joe Rojas, president of Local 506, which represents prison workers at Coleman, said Bulger didn’t have any problem with fellow inmates while in general population at USP Coleman II.

    Rojas said Bulger was assigned to the so-called “dropout unit,” made up of former gang members, informants, and other inmates who might face threats.

    Bulger had “his own bodyguards,” Rojas said, and “some of the younger inmates would bring him his lunch and dinner.”

    In a 2016 report, the District of Columbia Corrections Information Council found that Hazelton was overcrowded, understaffed, and employed a single physician, “which is not adequate to care for the medical needs of all inmates, especially those who require chronic care.”

    The Bureau of Prisons uses a software system called Central Inmate Monitoring to warn prison officials if an inmate might be in danger from another prisoner, information that is crucial when inmates are initially placed or later transferred. In Bulger’s case, he fell under the system’s category of “broad publicity,” which the Bureau of Prisons lists as “inmates who have received widespread publicity as a result of their criminal activity or notoriety as public figures.” Bulger having been publicly identified as an FBI informant also placed him squarely in the CIM system, according to a Bureau of Prisons program statement on CIM.

    What remains unclear, because the Bureau of Prisons refuses to comment, is whether CIM system protocols were followed in Bulger’s case. Bulger was found dead in his cell within 14 hours of his arrival at Hazelton on the night of Oct. 29.

    Several law enforcement officials say they can’t understand why Bulger wasn’t initially placed in isolation at Hazelton until officials there could determine whether he would be safe in general population. Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., said placing Bulger in the general population in Hazelton amounted to a “death penalty.”

    Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.