A month ago, Andrea Circle Bear gave birth while on a ventilator after catching the coronavirus behind bars. On Tuesday, the 30-year-old died, making her the first woman in federal prison to be killed by COVID-19, according to press releases on the Bureau of Prisons’ website.
“When the COVID outbreak happened, she should have been released,” said Jessica Brand, the founder of a social-justice consulting firm, the Wren Collective, and a former public defender. “She was high-risk, and she was pregnant. But instead, they transferred her from jail to prison. It’s a totally avoidable tragedy.”
As the coronavirus continues to ravage the U.S., prisons and jails are among the worst places to be. People are packed into cells and dorms where they sleep mere feet apart without proper access to masks, hand sanitizer, or medical care. These facilities are hotbeds for an outbreak, and in the jails on Rikers Island, the disease is spreading eight times faster than in New York City, the coronavirus epicenter of the world. So far, 30 people detained in federal prisons have died from the disease, and that number jumps to more than 200 in state prisons and jails.
Circle Bear, a Native American woman who lived on a reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, was sent to a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 20. She was serving a 26-month sentence for a drug-related charge. Roughly 10 days later, Circle Bear was placed on a ventilator at a local hospital after developing a fever and dry cough. She had a preexisting medical condition that made her more vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to the BOP, which did not give any more details about her health in a press release.
On April 1, Circle Bear had a C-section. Three days later, she tested positive for the coronavirus. A BOP spokesman said the agency would not answer questions about the baby’s condition for privacy reasons.
More than 12,000 women are in federal prison, and at least 3% are incarcerated when they are pregnant. The prenatal care in these facilities ranges from poor to nonexistent, with detained mothers being handcuffed on the way to the hospital or, in some cases, forced to give birth without any medical help.
Criminal-justice advocates have been calling for jails and prisons to release people behind bars to help stop the virus’ spread, especially those who are elderly, have health issues, or who are locked up for nonviolent offenses. While some states have taken action, the BOP has dragged its heels on letting people out, and a federal judge called the release process “Kafkaesque.”
Though U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently sent a memo urging the agency to “immediately maximize” the release of prisoners, the BOP has been prioritizing people who have served at least 50% of their sentences. Under that criteria, even women like Circle Bear, who are pregnant, suffer from health conditions, and who were arrested on nonviolent defenses, must stay in facilities where the coronavirus is running rampant.
Brand said the justice system is more focused on punishment than trying to solve a global health pandemic. “She shouldn’t have been locked up in the first place,” said Brand. “And now that we know it’s a public-health crisis, she should have been sent home.”