COLEMAN, Fla. (AP) - The current residence of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger sprawls off a two-lane Sumter County highway that offers only scrubby trees and power lines as relief for the scenic monotony.
The federal penitentiary hunkered down about 10 minutes southeast of Coleman, a city once known as the “Cabbage Capital of the World,” doesn’t much bother the mayor. The facility, he said, hums along quietly next to city residents, some of whom don’t realize their neighbors are among the nation’s most notorious criminals.
“We don’t know who comes in. We don’t know who goes out,” Coleman Mayor Milton Hill said. “It’s probably good we don’t know.”
Hill said he wasn’t aware the nearby compound of roughly 7,100 inmates contains Bulger, the 85-year-old who was once one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives. From behind those bars, Bulger made news recently for sending a handwritten note of advice to three high-school girls who had corresponded with him for a history project.
In the letter, Bulger reflected on his wasted life that “brought shame and suffering” to his family and is now drawing to a close.
Bulger brought attention to a facility that otherwise keeps a low profile despite being the nation’s largest federal prison, Sumter County’s largest employer and the home for a roster of high-profile inmates. Texas tycoon Robert Allen Stanford - convicted of running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme - is there. So is Stephen Caracappa, one of two former New York Police Department detectives dubbed the “Mafia cops” by media outlets and found guilty of working as mob assassins.
Also in Coleman is Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist imprisoned in the killings of two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
The list of inmates also includes Tijuana cartel leader Benjamin Arellano Felix; convicted Somali pirate Gabul Abdullah Ali; Amine El Khalifi, an al-Qaida sympathizer who plotted a suicide bombing on the U.S. Capitol; and Ronnie Thomas, a Baltimore gang member infamous for producing the underground “Stop Snitching” videos that promoted a culture of witness intimidation.
Conrad Black, a media baron and member of Britain’s House of Lords, also did several years in Coleman as punishment for defrauding investors. And but for a hurricane that forced her elsewhere, famous homemaker Martha Stewart might have served out her sentence at Coleman, her second-choice prison.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said prominent criminals are nothing unusual for U.S. penitentiaries, and the system is used to dealing with terrorists, former law-enforcement officers and public officials toppled in corruption probes.
The bureau takes prisoners through a detailed classification process to determine whether they belong in low-, medium- or high-security facilities, said Edmond Ross, an agency spokesman.
The Coleman complex has prisons at each of these levels, including two high-security penitentiaries where staff-to-inmate ratios are the greatest and prisoner activity is most tightly controlled. Currently, 3,029 prisoners are living in these two male-only penitentiaries, according to bureau statistics.
While judges can offer recommendations about where to incarcerate inmates, the bureau is ultimately in charge of the placement, he said.
Most prisoners, even those who have gained notoriety, try to blend in with the general population and don’t need special treatment, Ross said. Prison staff generally counsel prisoners that “bringing a lot of attention to yourself, it’s not going to do you any good,” he said.
But the ever-colorful Bulger has continued to make headlines since his 2013 sentencing for charges including racketeering and participation in 11 murders. Bulger was being held in a high-security prison in Tucson, Ariz., until last year, when he was suddenly transferred to the Coleman facility situated about 50 miles northwest of Orlando.
Later, reports surfaced in The Boston Globe about an alleged relationship between Bulger and a female psychologist who counseled him and other inmates.
An investigation sought to determine whether the psychologist improperly accepted autographed photos from Bulger and helped him stay in touch with his girlfriend, who was in another prison. The Globe also reported that Bulger enjoyed a sort of celebrity status in the Arizona prison, posing for photos with other inmates and reminiscing about his heyday as a gangster.
Bulger’s attorney, Hank Brennan, said he couldn’t provide an explanation for his client’s sudden removal to Florida but remarked that “Coleman is a much more difficult jail than Arizona,” in terms of living conditions and inmate freedom.
Though Ross declined to comment on Bulger’s specific case, he said inmates can be relocated for medical, safety or disciplinary reasons, to be near family members or to participate in specific programs or services.
But Bulger’s recommendation about prison is to stay out of it, as he recently told the three high-school students from Lakeville, Mass.
“Advice is a cheap commodity some seek it from me about crime,” Bulger wrote from behind Coleman’s locked doors. “I know only one thing for sure - If you want to make crime pay - ‘Go to Law School.’”
Information from: Orlando Sentinel, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/
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