Andrea Circle Bear of Eagle Butte, South Dakota became the first female inmate to die after getting the coronavirus. The 30-year-old mother had just given birth two weeks prior while she was on a ventilator. She contracted the coronavirus shortly after she started her two-year drug sentence for selling methamphetamine.
Circle Bear was sentenced in January and ordered to serve 26 months in prison for using a home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation to sell drugs in 2018. She admitted to selling $850 worth of drugs to someone who turned out to be a confidential informant.
On March 20, Circle Bear was transferred from a jail in Winner, South Dakota to Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison in Fort Worth.
The Federal Medical Center houses 1,625 female prisoners and Circle Bear was quarantined from them on arrival, The New York Times reports.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons mandates quarantine in a new policy that’s meant to reduce the risk to inmates of contracting the virus from new arrivals.
A week after arriving at the facility in Fort Worth, on March 28, Circle Bear was transferred again, this time to a hospital where she was admitted. However, she was sent back to prison later the same day.
Three days later, Circle Bear began exhibiting symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection.
She was taken back to the hospital where she was placed on a ventilator because she was struggling to breathe on her own. On April 1, Circle Bear’s baby was born by C-section. The sentencing judge for Circle Bear said in court documents that her baby was due in May.
On April 4, just days after she gave birth, her test for coronavirus came back positive. She died three weeks later.
The Bureau of Prisons told NYT that Circle Bear had a pre-existing condition. An underlying health condition can worsen coronavirus symptoms and makes the person with the condition more likely to die from the disease.
Advocates for prison reform are asking why she was being held in the first place.
“Not every prison death is avoidable, but Andrea Circle Bear’s certainly seems to have been — she simply should not have been in a federal prison under these circumstances,” Kevin Ring president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. “Her death is a national disgrace, and I hope it is a wake-up call.”
According to the NYT’s tally, eight of the ten largest coronavirus clusters can be found in prisons and jails.
The Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the imprisonment of about 142,000 people, reported that 1,534 inmates and 343 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus and 31 inmates have died. However, the cast majority of inmates are held at state prisons and local jails. At least 12,000 inmates have tested positive in state prisons, and more than 150 people have died.
Lawmakers are calling on federal authorities to do more to protect inmates.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has urged the Justice Department to ease sentences and allow sick and older nonviolent offenders to serve their sentences at home.
“Andrea Circle Bear committed a low-level nonviolent drug offense, but she did not deserve to die,” Durbin told the NYT, adding that her child did not deserve to lose a mother.
The president of the union for correctional officers at the Fort Worth prison filed a whistle-blower complaint earlier this month.
Vice News reported that a whistle-blower complaint has been filed and claims that the medical center “knowingly and willingly misled the public.” The complaint alleges that the actions put staff and inmates at risk.
The complaint is addressed to Senator John Cornyn of Texas and was sent just days after Circle Bear tested positive. The letter states that the Bureau of Prisons provided “a false perception to the American people” about the steps it was taking to keep inmates and correctional officers safe.
Circle Bear’s tragic death should act as a lesson to lawmakers and authorities. All inmates, but especially pregnant women and any with underlying medical conditions, should be protected from the threat of coronavirus.
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