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US Inmate With Coronavirus Dies Weeks After Giving Birth On A Ventilator

Andrea Circle Bear, 30, had been sentenced to 26 months in federal prison on a drug charge.

Lakota People's Law Project

A pregnant Native American woman incarcerated in a federal prison in Texas was diagnosed with coronavirus and died in federal custody on Tuesday, officials said.

Andrea Circle Bear, 30, had been sentenced to more than two years in prison on a drug charge this January. She delivered her baby by caesarean section while on a ventilator in a Texas hospital on 1 April, and died there on 28 April.

Circle Bear’s child survived, but officials declined to provide any additional information on the baby’s condition or where the child is now, “out of respect for the family and for privacy reasons”, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said.

The 30-year-old woman “had a pre-existing medical condition” that made her more at risk for a severe case of coronavirus, according to federal officials, who did not specify what the condition was.

“Andrea should never have been in jail in the first place. Period,” the Democratic congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said on Wednesday during a discussion hosted by the Appeal, a criminal justice news site.

“That she was there at all is cruel and negligent,” Pressley said, calling Circle Bear one of many people “trapped inside of prison systems because of systemic inequities and a failed war on drugs”.

The Appeal (@theappeal)

Rep. @AyannaPressley joins 'The Briefing' to discuss care for incarcerated people during COVID-19: "We have to have reentry support. We have to have housing support. We have to have healthcare support. What we already know from prison is that you can't treat trauma with trauma."

April 29, 2020

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Circle Bear had admitted to selling 5.5 grams of methamphetamine to a confidential informant in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, over two different days in April 2018, according to court documents. She pleaded guilty to the charge of “maintaining a drug-involved premises”.

This January, Circle Bear, who was already five months pregnant, according to court documents, was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison by Judge Roberto A Lange.

Her sentencing documents note that Circle Bear had a history of substance abuse and recommended her as a candidate for a prison substance abuse treatment program. The documents also recommended that she be placed in a prison medical facility, given that she was pregnant, and due to deliver her child in early May.

The Department of Justice touted Circle Bear’s sentencing in a January press release. “Don’t let yourself or your property get mixed up in the world of illegal drugs. It ends badly,” the US attorney Ron Parsons said in a statement.

Circle Bear is the 29th federal inmate to die in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody since late March. As of Tuesday, more than 1,700 federal inmates have tested positive for Covid-19. About 400 of those inmates have recovered.

On 20 March, Circle Bear had been transferred from a local jail in South Dakota, to FMC Carswell, a federal prison medical facility in Fort Worth, Texas, officials said.

The prison medical facility was more than 1,000 miles away from Circle Bear’s home of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, which is part of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation.

As a new inmate in the federal prison system, Circle Bear was quarantined as part of the Bureau of Prisons’ plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to a press release from the bureau.

Eight days after she arrived, 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, officials said. 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, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Circle Bear was put on a ventilator the same day she arrived at the hospital and her baby was born the next day, officials said. She tested positive for Covid-19 days later.

Federal and state prison records listed Circle Bear’s race as Native American. A spokesperson for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An attorney who represented Circle Bear also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Circle Bear’s pregnancy made her high risk for the virus, but she would not be considered priority for release under the Bureau of Prisons and justice department guidelines on releasing prisoners to home confinement to help stop the spread. She was already on a ventilator when an expanded home confinement memo was handed down by the justice department in early April.

William Barr, the US attorney general, ordered the increased use of home confinement and the expedited release of eligible inmates by the Bureau of Prisons, with priority for those at low- or medium-security prisons, starting with virus hotspots. Under the Bureau of Prisons guidelines, the agency is prioritizing the release of those who have served half of their sentence or inmates who have 18 months or less left and who served at least 25% of their time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lois Beckett is a senior reporter covering gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States. Twitter @loisbeckett. Click here for Lois Beckett's public key.

Here at the Lakota People’s Law Project, we’ve seen a lot and worked hard to address a variety of important issues over the past 15 years — among them criminal justice reform for American Indians. Now, in the coronavirus era, this problem has raised its ugly head again: a 30 year-old woman from my tribal nation, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, died in federal custody in a Texas prison on Tuesday, Apr, 21, just three weeks after giving birth. The cause of her death? COVID-19.

How is it that one of our tribal members was taken from my homelands into custody by South Dakota state officials bent on ignoring the threat of coronavirus, and then shipped to a prison in another state that also ignores science — Texas — where she contracted a preventable disease that killed her?

At no point in this process did Andrea have the power to protect herself — an age-old crisis here in Indian Country: lack of sovereignty. Who will someday explain to Andrea’s infant child how and why her mother died in the hands of the enemy?

For a fuller picture of the circumstances surrounding Andrea’s premature and avoidable death, I encourage you to read this chilling article in The Guardian.

Andrea’s tragic story shows why your attention to our Indigenous communities is so important. In the coming days, the Lakota People’s Law Project media team will work with journalists to ensure they have support on the ground as they uncover what happened to Ms. Circle Bear. Moreover, we will redouble our efforts to resist willful ignorance in states like South Dakota and Texas in the face of this pandemic, and we'll work in every way we can to strengthen tribal nations. We live in poverty and we are vulnerable, but we know how to fight.

Please stay with us. With courage, everything is possible.

Wopila — My gratitude for your solidarity,

Madonna Thunder Hawk
Cheyenne River Organizer
The Lakota People's Law Project

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