When Andrea Circle Bear, a heavily pregnant 30-year-old from South Dakota, was sentenced to 26 months in prison for a drug-related offense, the prosecutor held her up as an example. “Don’t let yourself or your property get mixed up in the world of illegal drugs,” the U.S. attorney involved in the case warned in a press release. “It ends badly.”
For Circle Bear, the prison stint was ultimately a death sentence. Eleven days after arriving at a federal prison in Texas, she was transported to a hospital with a dry cough and fever. Her grandmother, Clara LeBeau, said Circle Bear called her from her hospital bed, sounding confused and afraid.
“She was asking about her children, and I told her not to worry about them, that they were well taken care of,” LeBeau said in a phone call with HuffPost. “We prayed together and told each other we loved each other, and that was the last time I spoke with her.” The following day, Circle Bear had an emergency caesarean section while on a ventilator, gasping for breath. On April 28, almost a month later, she became the first woman to die from coronavirus while in federal custody.
Her tragic death has brought sharp attention to the plight of incarcerated women during the coronavirus pandemic. Like Circle Bear, most women in prison are mothers of young children, their pathways into the criminal justice system marked by substance abuse, poverty and trauma. Though there are many more men behind bars than women, female incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s in recent decades.
Since the outbreak’s start, the virus has spread stealthily inside jails and prisons. More than 27,000 prisoners have been infected and 370 have died, according to a tally kept by the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, though it is unknown how many of those impacted are female. Social distancing is essentially futile as people are housed in confined spaces, eat and bathe in shared rooms and have limited access to cleaning supplies or personal protective gear. Incarcerated women across the country have reported rampant illness, subpar medical care and chronic undertesting.
“Being told to separate is impossible,” one incarcerated woman in Florida told the Miami Herald. “We are sleeping 12 inches from other inmates in a dorm of 86 women who share 12 toilets and nine showers.”
While federal and state officials have begun releasing some women to address the health crisis, activists say they’re not moving fast or thinking big enough.
“Women are afraid that they’re going to die in prison,” said Donna Hylton, a prison reform activist who served over 20 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s maximum-security prison for women. “They’re afraid like everybody else.”
Many incarcerated women have preexisting conditions after years of inadequate health care, entering prison with diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases and heart issues, she said. About two-thirds of women in prison report having a chronic health condition.
Inside Bedford Hills, 42 women have tested positive for the coronavirus. In early May, at least 10 women in the facility were pregnant, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the virus. After the Legal Aid Society called on state officials to release them, eight were sent home.
In a statement, Tina Luongo, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, welcomed the release of the women, but called on the state to act swiftly to release their other pregnant clients. “There is no justification to hold these women in custody further as the COVID-19 infection rate continues to climb, endangering the lives of everyone in prison,” she said. “Any further delay is heartless and will keep our clients and their unborn children in serious danger.”
Bedford Hills has seen one death from the virus, 61-year-old Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay. She was a survivor of domestic violence who had hoped to be released under a new state law that allows judges to take a second look at cases where abuse played a significant role in the conviction.
The mood in the prison was grim after her death, Hylton said.
“She made everyone laugh, you know, she was a joy,” she said. “Lots of people were fighting to get her out.”
Much of the states and federal effort to release prisoners due to the coronavirus has focused on nonviolent offenders with short sentences as well as the elderly, who are at the highest risk from dying from the infection.
In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that prisoners who are at least 55 years old and have less than 90 days remaining on their sentence may be released. But those who committed a violent felony, like Benson-Seay, were not eligible.
“We continue to have this narrative about the separation between nonviolent and violent crimes, and it’s only doing more harm,” Hylton said.
While the majority of women are in prison for drugs and property offenses, about 37% are convicted of “violent crimes,” a nebulous category that can include acts like purse-snatching or manufacturing methamphetamine, depending on the state.
When women do kill, their victims are often their family members, and in some cases, women who use violence are victims of severe violence themselves. Although there is no national data on the number of women imprisoned for defending themselves or their children, a 2005 study in New York found that two-thirds of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person.
In Michigan, the first female prisoner to die from COVID-19 was an elderly domestic violence survivor named Susan Farrell. The 74-year-old had served more than 30 years for the death of her abusive husband, who she maintained she did not kill.
She was held at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the state’s only prison for women, where inmates have complained about severe overcrowding for years. Two other women have died of the virus in the prison since, a spokesperson for the department told HuffPost.
“For so many women, their crimes are connected to acts of survival,” said Carol Jacobsen, the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, who advocated for Farrell’s unsuccessful clemency bid. “These women are no threat to anyone. They were acting the way any reasonable person would act in a situation where they thought their life was under threat.”
Others are in prison for crimes connected to male co-defendants, she added.
“Many of the women are in because of men who committed the crime and they were there and they may have had a hand in it but usually it’s very minor, if at all. And now they’re serving sentences that are often as much as the killer themselves,”Jacobsen said.
That was the case for Faye Brown, the first female prisoner to die of COVID-19 in North Carolina. She was convicted of murder for her role in the 1975 shooting death of a state trooper during a bank robbery. While she didn’t fire the gun, she was in the car when a male acquaintance shot the trooper.
In 2009, she almost won her release after her lawyers argued that when she was sent to prison, a life sentence meant no longer than 80 years. The credits she earned for good behavior should have reduced her time so she could go free. She ultimately lost the court battle.
Brown should have been released back then, Mary Pollard, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, told The State. “This is a woman who was immediately parole ready,” she said. “There was really no public safety reason to keep her in prison, and now she’s dead.”
Jails and prisons have suspended visitations to stop the spread of infection. For the families of incarcerated women, it has become increasingly difficult to check in on the safety of their loved ones or assess prison conditions.
When Tiffany Mofield, a 43-year-old woman serving time in New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility For Women, began experiencing extreme fatigue and respiratory distress, her family was led to believe that she was receiving care at a local hospital. Only after her death did they learn that she was never hospitalized, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.
“We want to know what happened,” said the woman’s daughter, Shatifia Cooke, in a press release. “I feel like my mother was crying out for help and instead of being taken to a hospital, she was just ignored.”
Female prisoners are also suffering from the lack of communication from the outside world. Stephanie Greene, an incarcerated woman in South Carolina, said she was feeling more isolated than usual due to the canceled visits.
“Quite depressing not even getting to see my kids today,” she wrote to HuffPost on Mother’s Day. “This place is just soul-sucking and spirit crushing and erodes the psyche day after day, week after week.”
Her prison makes masks, she said, and she was given two. While the facility was attempting to practice social distancing, the rules were often contradictory. In the cafeteria, the women were spaced out, but they had to form a crowd in the lobby to enter. Greene said she was especially worried about contracting the virus because she has heart conditions.
“Of course we are frightened,” she wrote in another email. “I do not want to die in a disease infested cage.”
Clara LeBeau, the grandmother of Circle Bear, is now caring for a newborn baby girl. A few weeks after Circle Bear gave birth, LeBeau drove 16 hours from South Dakota to Texas to pick up her great-granddaughter from the hospital.
LeBeau was not allowed to see Circle Bear, who was struggling for her life on a ventilator. “It was very hurtful when I drove all the way down there and I couldn’t see her,” LeBeau said, crying.
The baby is healthy and thriving, she said. Circle Bear’s other children — she had five — are being cared for by their grandfather. Her family is raising money for the kids on GoFundMe.
LeBeau described her granddaughter as a loving mother and a talented baker who used to sell fresh cinnamon rolls to local office buildings. “I taught her how to bake,” she said. “She was so good at it.”
She said she hoped that Circle Bear’s death would spur new examination of the laws around pregnant women in prison.
“Hopefully, no one would ever have to go through what I did,” she said.
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