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After hospital, where will Boston bombing suspect go?

FBI via Reuters

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center now. The feds will have to figure out where he goes next while awaiting trial.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been hospitalized since his arrest, but if his condition continues to improve he will soon experience the hospitality of a high-security lockup while waiting for a trial that could be two years away, experts say.

"As soon as he is medically cleared, he'll be moved," said Steven Swensen, a former U.S. marshal who now runs a judicial security consulting firm. "This is a high-threat, high-profile situation."

Tsarnaev's condition improved from serious to fair on Tuesday. But his injuries -- including a gunshot wound to the head and neck that could be self-inflicted -- were so severe he initially communicated with investigators in writing.

The hospital and FBI have not released details of his treatment at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he was under heavy guard, or given any hint of when he might be released.

Video from a restaurant surveillance camera shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walking toward the scene of the second bombing and slipping his backpack off, investigators say. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

When it happens, the U.S. marshals and federal prosecutors will have to weigh distance from the courthouse against security and medical needs in choosing a new temporary home for the suspect.

Federal prisoners are sometimes sent to the Plymouth County Jail, which can handle high-risk prisoners but does not have extensive medical facilities. The state's Shattuck Hospital has a jail unit and is only about 20 minutes from the courthouse.

Further afield, there's the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, R.I., a privately run maximum-security federal detention facility less than an hour's drive Boston, or the federal prison hospital at Fort Devens in Harvard, Mass.

If it's Wyatt, Tsarnaev would be far from the first high-value prisoner locked up there. Rezwan Ferdus, who pleaded guilty to trying to fly bomb-laden model aircraft into the Capitol and the Pentagon, spent 399 days in solitary confinement at the facility before he was sentenced.

But the 771-inmate center has just four hospital beds, according to its annual report, and it became the subject of controversy in 2008 when an immigration detainee died of advanced cancer and the feds found he had been neglected.

Devens is a medical facility but doesn't typically house suspects before sentencing. The Bureau of Prisons said it can handle detainees of any security-risk level, but it's also about an hour from Boston.

Wherever he ends up, experts said, Tsarnaev will likely be subject to special administrative measures that could sharply curtail his contact with fellow prisoners and the outside world.

Elise Amendola / AP file

Devens Federal Medical Center is seen in Devens, Mass., in December 2011.

Stephen Huggard, a former Boston federal prosecutor who worked on the 9/11 investigation, said Tsarnaev's parents, who are in Russia and have insisted he's being framed, may not even be allowed to visit.

How long the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth student spends in a local lockup depends in large part on whether prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty -- a decision that is months away and will ultimately be made by Attorney General Eric Holder.

If the marathon bombing becomes a capital case, it could be "a couple a years" before a jury decides his fate, Huggard said.

Tsarnaev, 19, hasn't even been arraigned yet.

He nodded answers to a few questions at a cut-and-dried initial appearance before a magistrate in his hospital bed after being charged with one count of using a weapon of mass destruction and a second count of malicious use of an explosive.

The next step is for a grand jury to vote on an indictment. Technically, prosecutors have 30 days to get that done, but legal experts agree the deadline is likely to waived by both sides while they continue to investigate.

The suspect's next court date, May 30, would then be a status hearing, and he would not be arraigned until the indictment -- which could contain more charges and evidence than the criminal complaint signed this week -- is issued.

"There is no reason to rush at this point," said Dan Collins, a former federal prosecutor in Minnesota who worked on the Mumbai bombing case.

Tsarnaev has been assigned three federal public defenders who are likely, given what legal analysts describe as overwhelming evidence, to open discussions about a plea deal that would keep their client off death row at the "supermax" prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

"It wouldn't shock me if this ends in a plea," Huggard said.

"This is a kid, and as heinous as his acts are, he acted atypically for what we would expect for a terrorist," he said, noting that Tsarnaev was back at school and the gym after the bombing and before the bloody rampage that led to his arrest.

"Does it mean he didn't fully comprehend what he was doing? That's going to get explored by both sides."

But Huggard added that if Tsarnaev was telling the truth when he reportedly told investigators he and his older brother Tamerlan were lone actors and not sponsored or deployed by a terrorist cabal, it may make it harder to get the death penalty off the table.

"Then he has nothing to offer," he said. "Then he's just a guy who decided he wanted to blow up America."