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Death Of New Mother At Federal Prison Hospital Prompts Calls For Accountability In Texas

Andrea Circle Bear was confined within FMC Carswell while suffering from the novel coronavirus. ‘She was serving a 26-month sentence that ended up being a death penalty,’ one maternity specialist said.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.

Andrea Circle Bear, the first female federal prisoner to succumb to the novel coronavirus, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant in late March when she was sent to FMC Carswell, a prison medical facility in Texas. When she went into labor on April 1, a cesarean section was performed, because it’s impossible for a mother to push on a ventilator. While her baby was delivered safely, Circle Bear died last week of complications related to COVID-19. She was 30 years old.

Despite being unlikely to pose much danger to society in her condition, Circle Bear was sent to Carswell when the coronavirus pandemic was well underway. Her death has sparked a growing chorus of criticism from criminal justice reform advocates and others, who say the government should have taken urgent steps to protect her.

“The hard question is why a pregnant person is in jail and at risk of death from COVID-19 in the first place,” Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, a maternity and birth specialist and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, said. “Although birthing people are not at increased risk of acquiring the virus that we know of so far, we do know that if they become ill, two lives are at risk.” 

Circle Bear, who was Native, was serving a two-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. “She was serving a 26-month sentence that ended up being a death penalty,” Crear-Perry said. She and other criminal reform advocates are shocked by the senselessness of her death.

“There were clear options that could have been implemented, such as home confinement or no sentence at all,” Anrica Caldwell, a criminal reform advocate with the group CAN-DO Foundation for Clemency, said. “If this nation can’t see the disregard for life given this preventable catastrophe, then we have totally gotten seduced by incarceration being the norm. And I don’t want to hear, ‘Don’t do the crime.’ Her death was a crime.” 

Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, also argues that her death was preventable. 

“Her death was a tragedy, and, worse, it was an avoidable tragedy,” Ring said. “Who thought sending this young pregnant mother to Carswell in the middle of a global pandemic was a good idea? We talk a lot about holding people who break the law accountable for their mistakes. It’s time we hold the BOP accountable.”

Attorney General William Barr issued a memo on March 26 calling for the release or home confinement of federal prisoners vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, but many federal prison facilities overseen by the Bureau of Prisons have yet to comply. On April 29, the Associated Press reported that 70 percent of federal inmates who have been tested for coronavirus tested positive.

In late April, there were 1,658 prisoners in Carswell. As of April 30, according to BOP data, there were 1,615 inmates. It’s not clear if the decrease indicates the regular turnover of people being transferred if they’re no longer sick, prisoners who have died, or prisoners who have served their time.

While Circle Bear’s death has garnered the most attention over the past week, other sick prisoners at Carswell say they also are having health care challenges, including being deprived of treatment with no explanation. Nicole, a 43-year-old woman suffering from Stage 4 cancer, said that for two weeks in a row now, she and three other women have not received their regular course of chemotherapy. She said she hasn’t been given a reason why, and she’s terrified that her condition puts her at great risk for COVID-19 infection. 

My body will never be able to handle that,” she wrote in a message from Carswell. She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by prison officials. “I was told that they would not be doing chemo at all this week but they didn’t know why but was trying to get ahold of the UNT Hospital to find out.” 

The three other women she normally receives weekly treatments with “didn’t get their treatments either and no one will tell them why either,” she wrote. “I pray that someone has a heart along the line that will help me.” 

Her cancer has spread to her lungs, so she can’t breathe without oxygen. She uses a wheelchair. 

“She in no way would have any physical capability of reoffending under these debilitating medical circumstances,” Georgean Arsons, an advocate on her behalf, said. “This is an exceptional circumstance where this woman has rapidly progressing cancer for which the chemo is not working, her immune system is nonexistent, and she will certainly die very quickly if she is exposed to COVID.”         

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.

Nicole said she and other sick women in the facility get conflicting information almost daily about their eligibility for home confinement. One woman, she said, opted out of chemo treatments after a jail staffer told her that if she got cancer treatment, she’d have to stay in the prison for at least another year. 

“So this woman said she will stop cancer treatment in order to be able to go home” to home confinement, Nicole wrote. 

Since first speaking to The Appeal last week, Nicole has been approved for home confinement, following a 14-day quarantine period. However, she and a group of other women have not been issued release dates yet, so it’s uncertain when their two-week isolation will begin. Nicole worries that she’ll miss further chemotherapy treatments during the 14-day-quarantine in the prison and another 14-day quarantine when she goes home.

Thus, she will then be without a cancer treatment for at least four consecutive weeks if not longer,” Arsons said. “She will be even more sick and closer to her demise.”