The recent death in federal custody from COVID-19 of a 30-year-old woman who had recently given birth has sparked outrage from politicians, justice monitoring groups and civil liberties organisations, with some calling for an investigation into how authorities handled the vulnerable prisoner during the pandemic.
Andrea Circle Bear, 30, of South Dakota, died on Tuesday while in federal custody in Texas, about a month after she was hospitalised while serving a 26-month sentence for maintaining a drug-involved premises. She had given birth just weeks ago while on a ventilator.
Circle Bear is the first known woman to die in federal custody in the United States since the outbreak began. Authorities have reported 30 other federal prisoner deaths from COVID-19 since the outbreak first reached the US. More than 1,500 inmates and 343 employees have been infected, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Prisoner advocates say Circle Bear’s death underlines the need to reduce the federal prison population in light of the pandemic, which has killed more than 60,000 in the US.
Measures already taken by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which oversees the BOP, have come too late and have lacked clarity over who qualifies for early release and home confinement, critics say.
Kevin Ring, the president of FAMM, a criminal justice advocacy group, called Circle Bear’s death a “national disgrace” and called for an investigation into the authorities’ handling of the high-risk prisoner.
FAMM calls for an investigation into the death of Andrea Circle Bear who died of COVID-19 in Federal Bureau of Prisons custody | FAMM https://t.co/9sYbd7H45J
— Kevin Ring (@KevinARing) April 29, 2020
“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,” Ring said in a statement.
“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.”
Circle Bear pleaded guilty in January to maintaining a drug-involved premises for distributing methamphetamine on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The case stemmed from a confidential informant twice purchasing meth from Circle Bear at the location, the Rapid City Journal reported.
The pregnant Circle Bear was transferred from a local jail in South Dakota to FMC Carswell, a federal prison medical facility in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 20.
At the federal facility, she was quarantined as part of the Bureau of Prisons policy.
On March 28, she was taken to a local hospital for “potential concerns regarding her pregnancy” but was discharged from the hospital the same day and brought back to the prison, according to a BOP statement.
Three days later, prison medical staff members decided she should be brought back to the hospital after she developed a fever, dry cough and other symptoms. Circle Bear was put on a ventilator on March 31, the same day she arrived at the hospital. Her baby was born the next day by caesarian section, officials said.
The new mother tested positive for COVID-19 on April 4.
While Circle Bear’s pregnancy made her high risk if she contracted the virus, it was unclear if she would have qualified for home confinement or expedited release, as outlined by BOP and DOJ as part of measures to stop the spread of the virus.
Attorney General William Barr in late March ordered the BOP to begin working to release non-violent federal inmates into home confinement if they met certain criteria, including increased medical vulnerability.
An April 3 memo expanded the pool of those considered eligible, although there has since been confusion over who qualifies under the guidelines.
Andrea Circle Bear should be alive. Holding her newborn baby in her arms. Instead, she died in prison from #COVID19. Every day @OfficialFBOP refuses to act puts lives in danger #decarceratenow #sayhername #restinpower https://t.co/6geNwuKotJ
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) April 29, 2020
More recently, on April 22, DOJ issued a memo saying they were prioritising the release of prisoners who have served at least half of their sentences, or who have 18 months or less left and have served 25 percent of their sentences.
Circle Bear was already on a ventilator by the time the April 3 memo was issued.
In a tweet, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley called for more at-risk prisoners to be released.
“Andrea Circle Bear should be alive. Holding her newborn baby in her arms,” she said. “Instead she died in prison from #COVID19. Every day @OfficialFBOP refuses to act puts lives in danger.”
Andrea Circle Bear delivered her baby while on a ventilator due to COVID-19 and died 4 weeks later. She shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place, let alone 1,000 miles from home. The cruelty of the federal prison system is staggering & breathtaking https://t.co/gCAMN4hpTl
— Udi Ofer (@UdiACLU) April 29, 2020
Udi Ofer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Justice Division, in a tweet, echoed that sentiment.
“She shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place, let alone 1,000 miles from home,” he wrote. “The cruelty of the federal prison system is staggering & breathtaking.”