Andrea Circle Bear died from COVID-19 four weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator in federal prison, leaving behind her newborn baby, a grief-stricken grandmother, and many questions about how the 30-year-old woman’s death could have been prevented.
Documents obtained by VICE News show that staff at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, had filed a whistleblower complaint with a U.S. senator a week after Circle Bear gave birth, alleging that the Bureau of Prisons “knowingly misleads the American public” about conditions in federal prisons. The complaint warned that the BOP was taking a “cavalier approach” to quarantine that put staff and inmates at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
The whistleblower complaint is signed by Regina Warren, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1006, the union for staff and correctional officers at FMC Carswell, which holds 1,625 female inmates in varying security levels. It’s the only designated medical facility for women in the federal prison system, which is how Circle Bear ended up there on Friday, March 20.
Circle Bear had been convicted of “maintaining a drug-involved premises” on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Court documents show that informants visited a house where she was staying and purchased around five grams of meth in 2018. By the time her sentencing rolled around in January, she was in her second trimester and finalizing a divorce from her husband. A judge gave her 26 months and she was “immediately remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service,” according to the federal prosecutor’s office in South Dakota.
Before arriving in Carswell, Circle Bear was detained in South Dakota’s Winner City Jail, which has a contract to hold prisoners for the U.S. Marshals. The jail’s deputy administrator told VICE News there are no COVID-19 cases at the jail, and said Circle Bear appeared healthy — though pregnant — while in jail custody. South Dakota’s health department reports no COVID-19 cases in the county where the jail is located.
On March 20, a week after the BOP announced it was “restricting inmate movement” in hopes of containing the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Marshals moved Circle Bear to Carswell. Circle Bear’s grandmother, Clara LeBeau, told VICE News they had objected to her being moved. Circle Bear has five other children, ages 2-10, and several of them were delivered by cesarean sections, making her a high-risk OB/GYN case, LeBeau said. She’d previously given birth at a hospital in Pierre, SD, and had been receiving prenatal care there before being sent to the Winner City jail
“She was concerned,” LeBeau said. “She’s going somewhere to have her baby where she’s just not knowing the doctors and staff like she does here at the hospital in Pierre. I was concerned too, it bothered me. I said, ‘You shoulda told ‘em you were high risk,’ and she said she did. I guess they didn’t pay attention.”
LeBeau said that on the trip from South Dakota to Fort Worth, Texas, Circle Bear reported being forced to stand out on a cold runway with no jacket while the plane was prepared for her and other inmates. She told her grandma she was feeling sick a few days later, saying doctors suspected a case of pneumonia.
“If they’d known she was high-risk, they shouldn't have even flown her. That was the start of everything.”
According to the BOP, Circle Bear was hospitalized on March 28 “due to potential concerns regarding her pregnancy,” but returned to prison that same day after undergoing an evaluation. Three days later, on March 31, the BOP says, Circle Bear began showing a fever, dry cough, and other symptoms of COVID-19. She was sent back to the local hospital emergency room.
LeBeau says she got a call from the hospital with her granddaughter on the line: “She was afraid. She was kinda crying. I suppose because of the unknown, what they were going to do to her and the baby.”
LeBeau had already agreed to be the caregiver for her great-grandchild while Circle Bear was in prison, and she reaffirmed that commitment on the call with the hospital. She said Circle Bear asked about her other children, then they prayed together. That was the last time they spoke.
“She said ‘I told ‘em I was sick, I was in there four or five days and I was telling them but they didn’t pay attention,’” LeBeau recalled. “She said please call my grandma and tell her she'll know and she’ll pray for me,’ but they didn’t even do that.”
LeBeau said she wasn’t warned that Circle Bear was going to be placed on a ventilator. According to the BOP, Circle Bear gave birth by emergency C-section on April 1, while she was on a ventilator.
A BOP spokesperson said the baby survived but declined to provide additional information. LeBeau said the baby is a healthy girl that has twice tested negative for COVID-19. Circle Bear had the name already picked out: Elyciah Elizabeth Ann High Bear.
Circle Bear remained hospitalized on a ventilator, and her test result for COVID-19 came back positive on April 4. Three days later, the whistleblower’s complaint was sent to the office of Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. A spokesperson for Cornyn confirmed that the whistleblower complaint was received and said the Justice Department had been alerted.
The complaint alleges that BOP is “providing a false perception to the American people” by stating that movement of inmates, such as Circle Bear’s recent transfer, had been limited.
It says the lack of clarity around safety precautions has “caused staff and inmates to be at risk,” and that as recently as early April, inmates at Carswell were still moving around the facility, including “playing volleyball on the compound as well as congregating in small confine TV rooms.”
The whistleblower complaint alleges at least seven staff members at FMC Carswell came into contact with Circle Bear while she was symptomatic, but were told to continue coming to work while their COVID-19 test results were pending. FMC Carswell houses many sick and elderly women, and the union chief warned of a “catastrophe” unless “extraordinary measures” are taken to prevent further spread of the virus.
In a statement to VICE News, BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson said the agency is limiting inmate movement as much as possible, and that inmate transfers are down 95% compared to April and March of last year, but the agency has “no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the U.S. Marshals Service.”
A U.S. Marshals Service spokesperson told VICE News they get gotten clearance from Circle Bear's health provider before transferring her to FMC Carswell, and that special precautions were taken, such as a “specialized nonstop movement accomplished within the same day.” The spokesperson did not confirm which health professional cleared Circle Bear's transfer.
“Inmates are screened prior to being moved to us and they wear cloth face coverings during transport,” Nelson said. “If an inmate is symptomatic, we will not accept them. All newly admitted inmates coming into the BOP are screened and temperature checked by employees wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to include surgical masks, face shields/goggles, gloves, and gowns in accordance with CDC guidance.”
Nelson noted that FMC Carswell has been “operating in a modified manner” in response to COVID-19 since April 2, which includes a halt to “all outside recreation activities.”
The BOP spokesperson declined to discuss the details of how Circle Bear’s was handled because of unspecified “safety and security reasons,” but said the staff who transported her to the hospital was ordered to quarantine for 14 days and subsequently returned to work after showing no symptoms and undergoing a screening.
“Andrea Circle Bear committed a low-level nonviolent drug offense, but she did not deserve to die.”
A Cornyn spokesperson said that after receiving the complaint, “Our staff pressed the Justice Department repeatedly about mitigation of the spread of the virus, the conditions in these facilities, and expressed concern for the officers and staff there. We also pushed the Justice Department to use their authority to allow for individualized releases based on specific circumstances, including an inmate’s health.”
The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has led a bipartisan push to get vulnerable inmates released from federal prison during the coronavirus outbreak, and requested that the Justice Department’s Inspector General investigate the Trump administration’s handling of the situation. Durbin issued a statement on Circle Bear, saying, “Simply put, this tragic death was preventable.”
“Andrea Circle Bear committed a low-level nonviolent drug offense, but she did not deserve to die, and an innocent child did not deserve to lose his mother,” Durbin said. “The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons must act to prevent more death and suffering, and they must act now.”
The BOP currently reports just one inmate with COVID-19 at FMC Carswell. More than 1,300 federal prisoners have tested positive, along with over 300 staffers. At least 30 people have died. One of the worst outbreaks is at FMC Fort Worth, another federal medical facility near Carswell, where 241 inmates have tested positive and 3 have died.
One FMC Carswell staffer, who requested anonymity for fear of backlash from the BOP, said the COVID-19 positive inmate at the facility was Circle Bear’s cellmate. That woman appears to be asymptomatic, the staffer said, and is being held in quarantine as a precaution.
The staff source shared pictures of makeshift face masks made from thin cloth they said were being handed out to Carswell’s prisoners, and said the BOP still isn’t doing enough to prevent the virus from spreading in a medical facility with hundreds of vulnerable inmates.
“They’re still bringing inmates from hot spots,” the person said. “We want to stop all inmate transfers and movement. We got a self-surrender just yesterday. They quarantine these people, but you need to stop all movement within the BOP.”
Nelson, the BOP spokesperson, said the agency has issued surgical masks to staff and inmates in all federal prisons, and prison factories have been repurposed to make “cloth face coverings for our staff and inmate population,” along with hand sanitizer and other items.
“We will distribute the cloth face coverings as they are produced to preserve surgical masks for quarantine and screening purposes with the goal being, consistent with CDC guidance, to limit transmission of coronavirus by ‘asymptomatic’ or ‘pre-symptomatic’ persons when social distancing cannot be achieved,” Nelson said.
LeBeau said she wrote to Circle Bear’s judge arguing that her granddaughter shouldn’t have been incarcerated at all while pregnant. She said Circle Bear had changed since her arrest in 2018, describing her as “bubbly and friendly” and a devoted mother to her children, who are now being cared for by their grandfather.
“She was going to school with a full-time job, but she couldn't work schedules out so she let her job go and her school go and just became a full-time mom,” LeBeau said. “She was a real good cook. She cooked for her kids and kept them clean and really loved them. She made a mistake and she regretted it and she knew she’d have to pay the consequences.”
A spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office in South Dakota declined to comment on Circle Bear’s case.
“Don’t let yourself or your property get mixed up in the world of illegal drugs,” U.S Attorney Ron Parsons said when Circle Bear was sentenced in January. “It ends badly.”
The Cheyenne River Sioux, like many other Native American tribes, have been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid addiction in recent years. Circle Bear’s family is no stranger to tragedy; two of her sisters died young. Her sister-in-law, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, also died in jail while pregnant in 2015.
According to news reports, Sarah Lee Circle Bear was 24 and the mother of two boys when she was arrested on a bond violation. She reportedly told staff at a local jail in South Dakota that she was experiencing severe abdominal pain but had her pleas for help ignored until it was too late, and was pronounced dead at a local hospital in August 2015.
LeBeau wept recalling the recent death of her granddaughter, saying it “could have been prevented” if federal authorities had simply not transported her to Texas.
“I really believe it was their fault,” LeBeau said. “If they’d known she was high-risk, they shouldn't have even flown her. That was the start of everything.”
Cover: FMC Carswell. Photo: Bureau of Prisons.