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Boston bomb suspect's new home has motley cast of alums

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been moved to a Massachusetts prison facility from the hospital he has been held in for a week.

The federal prison holding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has a haunted history and a colorful cast of alumni — including a mobster nearing age 100, a disgraced hedge fund whiz and a man described by prosecutors as a jihadi who trained with a paintball gun.

Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the attack on the Boston Marathon, was moved Friday from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston to the Federal Medical Center Devens, nestled in pleasant woods about 40 miles outside the city.

“There are a lot of heavy hitters in there,” said Lee Siegfried, a former DJ best known as the “Crazy Cabbie” character on Howard Stern’s radio show, who spent five months there in 2006 on a tax-related rap.

“You have cartel guys, serious gang members, mob guys. And a large concentration of pedophiles. I would sit in the yard and guys would tell me, ‘See that guy? He’s here on 55 counts of sodomy involving children.’”

The facility is specially designed for inmates who need medical care. Tsarnaev has gunshot wounds to the neck, leg and hand, and during his first hospital interrogation he was still so badly injured he could only communicate by writing and shaking his head.

Devens also has a dialysis machine — a requirement for its most infamous inmate, former high-flying Wall Street trader Raj Rajaratnam, who has a bad kidney. He was sentenced to 11 years after an insider trading conviction.

“As far as federal prison facilities, it’s not a bad place,” said Cheri Nolan, a former deputy assistant attorney general who is managing director of Federal Prison Consultants, which works with defense lawyers on prison assignments and other matters.

Elise Amendola / AP

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

The prison handles maximum-security inmates and has a high population of sex offenders, she said. Nolan said Tsarnaev might wind up in the Segregated Housing Unit, which houses troublemaking inmates or those who need special protection.

In that unit, inmates are under close supervision 23 hours a day, and food is passed through a slot in the door, Nolan said. The remaining hour is recreation time, she said, but even then the inmates are only allowed to walk around in a secure yard.

“He won’t see anybody,” Siegfried said. “He’ll be given his one hour when no one else is given theirs. ... I call them puppy kennels because it’s literally what you would keep dogs outside in. It’s an 8-by-10-foot cage with a chain-link fence that’s high and tall, and they let you walk around and get some fresh air.”

Among Tsarnaev’s other neighbors at Devens is a 96-year-old gangster and onetime pal of Frank Sinatra named John Franzese, known as Sonny, who was convicted three years ago of shaking down strip clubs and a pizza parlor.

Franzese was found guilty after his own son testified against him at trial while he struggled to stay awake. He is scheduled for release in 2017, a few months after his 100th birthday.

“I remember meeting some mafiosos,” said Robert Walsh, a former school superintended who did a year at Devens on an embezzlement charge before he was released in May 2010. At recreation time, he said, “You have the Boston mafia on one end and the New York guys on the other end. Everybody kind of sticks to themselves. I didn’t feel unsafe.”

In all, Devens has about 1,200 inmates — 1,055 in its medical facility and 127 in a camp for mostly minimum-security inmates, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said.

A lawyer who has had clients do time at Devens told The Hartford Courant in 2005 that the prison has an outdoor basketball court. Woodworking, leather work and other crafts are popular, the lawyer told the newspaper.

It is unlikely Tsarnaev will enjoy any of those pursuits. Legal experts have said his interaction with other prisoners and the outside world will probably be sharply restricted.

Stephen Huggard, a former Boston federal prosecutor who worked on the Sept. 11 investigation, said that even Tsarnaev’s parents, who are in Russia and say the brothers were framed, may not be allowed to visit.

For more ordinary inmates, softball is big in the spring and summer, and the commissary offers candy, soup, coffee and chocolate, according to Prison Talk, a message board where past and future inmates swap reviews. Siegfried described the meals as well-balanced but not tasty, “like bad school lunch.”

Work detail includes landscaping, kitchen patrol and housekeeping, the reviews say, and the inmates pass time playing hearts or chess, except for around the holidays, when the prison sponsors a bingo game — top prizes are Gatorade and snacks.

The prison is positioned on an Army base that was decommissioned in 1996. It opened as Camp Devens in the last days of World War I, when 112 landowners sold farmland along the Nashua River to the federal government.

Deep in its history is one of the darker episodes in modern medicine: Camp Devens was a hot zone for the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people around the world.

An account from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health paints a ghastly picture — piled-up corpses, cots spilling into hallways and onto porches, men with skin turned deep blue from oxygen deprivation.

These days, the town of Devens invites retirees and people who want to get away from the noise of Boston. Some live in old Army officer quarters. Bristol-Myers Squibb, the drug company, just built a plant nearby.

“For people closer to Boston, this is like the middle of nowhere,” said Kara Fossey, executive director of the Fort Devens Museum. “I don’t know if you’d call it rural. But there’s a lake. There are woods and trails.”

Among other inmates at Devens is Sabri Benkahla, who is serving 10 years for lying to authorities about training with militants in Pakistan. Benkahla was accused of being part of an American group that trained with paintball guns. He is scheduled for release in 2016.

Roger Stockham, a Southern California man who was accused in January 2011 of plotting to blow up a mosque outside Detroit, served at Devens and was released late last year. His long criminal history includes holding a psychiatrist hostage, kidnapping his son, trying to hijack a plane and threatening to kill the president.

Regular inmates at Devens have a fairly structured life — breakfast, then a wait in the pill line for those who need medicine, then their jobs, then any classes or programs in which they are enrolled, Nolan said. The ordinary inmates receive visitors.

“The staff there is known as being professional, very business-like,” she said. “It’s known as being one of the better-run institutions.”

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