Violence plagued West Virginia prison before Bulger killing

WASHINGTON (AP) — Long before notorious Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger was killed at a federal prison in West Virginia, lawmakers, advocates and even prison guards had been sounding the alarm about dangerous conditions there. But there has been no public indication that federal prison officials have taken action to address the safety concerns, even as Bulger's killing marks the third at the facility in the last six months.

An independent government commission found that United States Penitentiary Hazelton has been overcrowded for years. Inmates have repeatedly expressed concerns about their safety at the high-security prison, which houses 1,270 male inmates. A 2016 report from the District of Columbia's Corrections Information Council said that prisoners warned officials, "Inmates can lose their lives quickly here."

In April, 48-year-old Ian Thorne was killed during an altercation with a fellow prisoner, and in September, Demario Porter was also killed in another fight with a fellow inmate.

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BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 6: University of Massachusetts President William Bulger, brother of fugitive Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger, is sworn in before a congressional committee lead by U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform probing ties between FBI agents and mob informants, at Suffolk Superior Court House December 6, 2002 in Boston, Massachusetts. Bulger refused to answer any of the committee's questions citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The panel wanted to question Bulger about his brother James 'Whitey' Bulger, a notorious gang leader wanted in connection with 21 murders. 'Whitey' Bulger was also a valued informant who provided the FBI with information about New England cells of the Italian Mafia. (Photo by Douglas McFadd/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 2: Two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) artist composite images of fugitive James 'Whitey' Bulger are shown in this handout photo released by the FBI January 2, 2003 in Washington, DC. Bulger is on the FBI's top ten most wanted fugitive list for crimes related to his involvement with the Mafia, specifically on charges of racketeering, extortion and drug trafficking. Bulger has also been charged with being involved in the murders of 21 people. (Photo by FBI/Getty Images)
View of the door of the appartment 303 of the Princess Eugenia building in Santa Monica, California, on June 23, 2011, where James 'Whitey' Bulger was arrested June 22. The FBI finally caught the 81-year-old Bulger who was living for more than 10 years, with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, under the names of Charles and Carol Gasko, on the third floor of the Princess Eugenia, a three-story, 28-unit building of one- and two-bedroom apartments near the ocean in Santa Monica. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 19: Mary Bulger, wife of William Bulger, listens as her husband testifies before the House Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill June 19, 2003 in Washington, DC. Bulger is the brother of James 'Whitey' Bulger, an organized crime figure on the FBI's ten most-wanted list. The committee held the hearing to investigate the use of informants by the Justice Department. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 23: Mary Prang, Special Agent wit the FBI, adjusts a poster featuring fugitives Boston crime boss James 'Whitey' Bulger along with his companion Catherine Greig before a news conference by Steven Martinez, FBI assistant director in charge in Los Angeles, to discuss the arrest of Bulger and Greig at the Los Angeles Federal Building on June 23, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The FBI announced June 23, 2011 that Bulger was captured in his home in Santa Monica, California by the FBI after a 26-year manhunt when a tip lead law enforcement to the reputed mobster. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
BOSTON - JUNE 24: Reporters stand outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse as James 'Whitey' Bulger and girlfriend Catherine Greig are arraigned June 24, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. Bulger is wanted for the alleged murders of 19 people dating back to the mid 90's and Greig is wanted for harboring a criminal. Both were arrested in Santa Monica, California on Wednesday after 16 years on the run. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
BOSTON - JUNE 24: Spectators stand outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse as James 'Whitey' Bulger and girlfriend Catherine Greig are arraigned June 24, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. Bulger is wanted for the alleged murders of 19 people dating back to the mid 90's and Greig is wanted for harboring a criminal. Both were arrested in Santa Monica, California on Wednesday after 16 years on the run. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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Court records, oversight reports and news articles detail numerous violent incidents in recent years. In 2016, an inmate was charged with murder after prosecutors said he strangled another prisoner to death during a fight. In February 2015, an inmate stabbed a fellow prisoner with a hand-crafted weapon during a fight, according to court documents. Another inmate received an extended sentence in May for assaulting a fellow prisoner and possessing a deadly weapon.

"There are a multitude of federal prisons that don't have a homicide rate like that," said Cameron Lindsay, a former federal prison warden who now works as a jail security consultant.

The federal Bureau of Prisons has not responded to requests for comment about safety concerns at USP Hazelton.

Last week, five members of Congress wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about what they called "dangerous continual understaffing" at federal prisons in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and stated their alarm about the deaths at USP Hazelton.

Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said DOJ was "aware of the concerns raised in the letter" and would respond to the members of Congress.

In a separate letter this month, the District of Columbia's House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, asked the Justice Department's inspector general to launch an investigation into the conditions at USP Hazelton, citing Thorne and Porter's deaths. Holmes Norton said she had also heard about the "brutal treatment" of inmates at the prison and was concerned that the incidents "may be indicative of larger, ongoing problems at the facility."

In a statement Tuesday, Norton said Bulger's death "underscores reports of a culture of violence at Hazelton."

Norton's office said she had not received a response to her earlier letter, and John Lavinsky, a spokesman for the inspector general, declined to comment.

The 89-year-old Bulger, who benefited from a corrupt relationship with the FBI before spending 16 years as one of America's most wanted men, was found unresponsive Tuesday morning, just hours after he arrived at USP Hazelton. He was declared dead shortly afterward. Authorities have not released a cause of death, but prosecutors said it was being investigated as a homicide. A Mafia hit man, Fotios "Freddy" Geas, who is said to hate "rats," and at least one other inmate are believed to have been involved in Bulger's killing, an ex-investigator briefed on the case said Wednesday. The longtime investigator was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bulger led a largely Irish mob that ran loan-sharking, gambling and drug rackets. He also was an FBI informant who ratted on the New England mob, his gang's main rival, in an era when bringing down the Mafia was a top priority for the FBI.

It's not clear why he was transferred.

"What I don't understand is why the Federal Bureau of Prisons would transfer a super high-publicity inmate, who is a known snitch, to general population of a high-security prison. You've got to be smarter than that," Lindsay, the former warden, said.

Union officials say the prison is operating at about 75 percent of its staffing level and has dozens of vacant positions. They have also decried a practice known as augmentation, which taps health care workers, teachers, secretaries and prison cooks to fill correction officer positions because of officer shortages and overtime limits.

Justin Tarovisky, executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 420, which represents Hazelton prison guards, said Bulger's death "outlines how dangerous this prison is." The union voiced its concerns about staffing in a picket outside the prison as far back as 2015.

The letter sent to Sessions last week by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; and Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., said Congress had provided additional funding to ensure there would be at least two corrections officers on duty in each housing unit for each shift and that the policy was "not being enforced as intended." The legislators said they were concerned that the Bureau of Prisons hasn't followed Congress' direction to curtail "its overreliance on augmentation, particularly in housing units."

A hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration has left the agency short-staffed and some already overloaded federal prisons have been housing immigration detainees in recent months as well.

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, has pushed prison reform as a key priority, though others in the Trump administration — including Sessions — support the toughest possible sentences for drug and other convictions. Kushner has had an interest in prison reform since his own father, Charles Kushner, was incarcerated for 14 months after being convicted of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering.

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'Whitey' Bulger auction
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Guests look at items belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Home decorations belonging to Catherine Greig, longtime girlfriend of notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger, are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Notes written by notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are seen in the book 'Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City' during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Shoes and hats belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Guests look at items belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Cat mugs belonging to Catherine Greig, longtime girlfriend of notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger, are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A skull ring once belonging to James 'Whitey' Bulger and being offered for auction is seen in an undated picture released by the U.S. Marshals Service. Courtesy U.S. Marshals Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Guests look at items belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Pictures of pets owned by belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger and his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A man looks at jewelry belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A skull ring belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger is displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Guests look at items belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sweatpants belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Books belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A digital blood pressure monitor and cat book belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Stanley Cup Championship ring once belonging to James 'Whitey' Bulger and being offered for auction is seen in an undated picture released by the U.S. Marshals Service. Courtesy U.S. Marshals Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Shoes, clothing, and hats belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A calendar belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger is displayed during before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Notes written by notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger are seen in the book 'A Criminal and An Irishman' during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A gold claddagh ring belonging to notorious Boston mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger is displayed during a press preview before an asset-forfeiture auction in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off items seized in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

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