Illustration for article titled Native American Woman Dies from Coronavirus in Federal Prison After Giving Birth While On a Ventilator
Image: Associated Press

For weeks, criminal justice reform advocates have been calling for local and federal officials to do the right and humane thing and allow incarcerated people to serve out their sentences at home, as jails and prisons become some of the nation’s worst covid-19 hotspots, due to the inability to maintain social distance in crowded correctional facilities, along with officials’ refusal to provide even basic sanitation supplies.  

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And while some, like Michael Avenatti and the rapper Tekashi69 have successfully petitioned the federal Bureau of Prisons to be released early, thousands of less high profile people have not, including many with pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk. For 30-year-old Andrea Circle Bear, being incarcerated during the covid-19 pandemic turned into a death sentence.

On Tuesday, Circle Bear, a Native American woman from South Dakota who was serving a two-year federal sentence for selling 5.5 grams of methamphetamine to a confidential informant, died from covid-19 complications. She was pregnant while in prison, and her baby was delivered by c-section while she was on a ventilator, weeks before she died.

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More, from the New York Times:

On March 20, Ms. Circle Bear was transferred from a jail in Winner, S.D., to Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison that holds about 1,625 female prisoners in Fort Worth. She was immediately placed into quarantine, the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement, in line with the agency’s new policy to reduce the risk of inmates contracting the virus from a new arrival.

Because of concerns about her pregnancy, Ms. Circle Bear was admitted to a hospital about a week later, on March 28, but she was sent back to the prison later that day.

Three days later, Ms. Circle Bear developed a fever, a dry cough and more possible coronavirus symptoms, and was taken back to the hospital, where she was placed on a ventilator, a sign that she was struggling to breathe on her own. The next day, on April 1, her baby was born by cesarean section. The judge who sentenced Ms. Circle Bear had said in court documents that her baby was due in early May.

The Bureau of Prisons acknowledged in a press release announcing her death that Circle Bear “had a pre-existing medical condition which the CDC lists as risk factor for developing more severe COVID-19 disease.” It’s logical to question why, given her pre-existing condition and her being pregnant, the Bureau of Prisons refused to allow her to serve out her sentence at home–but what do I know, I’m just someone who thinks our country is obsessed with killing people.

Due to her pregnancy, Circle Bear was sent from South Dakota to the women’s prison in Fort Worth, which is the Bureau of Prisons’ sole medical facility for women in the nation. Circle Bear’s grandmother, Clara LeBeau, told Vice that when her granddaughter was transferred, she “reported being forced to stand out on a cold runway with no jacket while the plane was prepared for her and other inmates.” She began feeling sick a few days later.

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“She said ‘I told ‘em I was sick, I was in there four or five days and I was telling them but they didn’t pay attention,’” LeBeau said to Vice. “She said please call my grandma and tell her she’ll know and she’ll pray for me,’ but they didn’t even do that.”

Vice also reported that a whistleblower complaint was filed by the president of the staff union at the Fort Worth prison a week after Circle Bear gave birth, which charged that the Bureau of Prisons wasn’t even following the insufficient policies it had instituted to manage the covid-19 pandemic:

Documents obtained by VICE News show that staff at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, had filed a whistleblower complaint with a U.S. senator a week after Circle Bear gave birth, alleging that the Bureau of Prisons “knowingly misleads the American public” about conditions in federal prisons. The complaint warned that the BOP was taking a “cavalier approach” to quarantine that put staff and inmates at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

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The whistleblower complaint alleges at least seven staff members at FMC Carswell came into contact with Circle Bear while she was symptomatic, but were told to continue coming to work while their COVID-19 test results were pending. FMC Carswell houses many sick and elderly women, and the union chief warned of a “catastrophe” unless “extraordinary measures” are taken to prevent further spread of the virus.

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Prison reform advocates like Families Against Mandatory Minimums are calling for an investigation into Circle Bear’s death as well as for the Bureau of Prisons to release more people in their custody, given that, as the Times reports, 31 people in their custody have died from covid-19, and more than 1,500 people currently incarcerated in federal prisons have tested positive.

“She simply should not have been in a federal prison under these circumstances,” FAMM president Kevin Ring said in a press release. “In fact, nothing better demonstrates our mindless addiction to punishment more than the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic, our government moved a 30-year-old, COVID-vulnerable pregnant woman not to a hospital or to her home, but to a federal prison.”

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“This tragic death exposes the cruelty of our drug war and the inhumanity of our criminal justice system,” wrote Maritza Perez, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, in a statement. Perez added, “We cannot continue to choose punishment over public health. The outcomes unfortunately always seem to be the same—death and despair.”

Senior reporter, Jezebel

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