WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats condemned the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for its treatment of a 30-year-old incarcerated pregnant woman who died this week from COVID-19 after giving birth while on a ventilator, saying more needs to be done to protect vulnerable inmates.
“It’s an outrage that Andrea Circle Bear, a near full-term, pregnant woman with underlying medical conditions, lost her life while in federal custody,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a statement provided to Reuters.
“We have a moral and constitutional duty to prevent additional deaths among those who are detained or imprisoned,” he added.
Democratic Senate whip Richard Durbin, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed Nadler’s concerns. “Simply put, this tragic death was preventable.”
COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed at least 31 federal inmates and sickened more than 1,500.
The April 28 death of 30-year-old Circle Bear, who was serving a 26-month sentence for maintaining a drug-affiliated business, has angered criminal justice reform advocates and the families of incarcerated relatives. Those groups had previously criticized the Justice Department for a confusing rollout of rules to release non-violent offenders into home confinement to protect them from becoming infected.
Attorney General William Barr in late March ordered the BOP to begin working to release non-violent federal inmates into home confinement if they met certain criteria, and later expanded the pool of people who could qualify after declaring the BOP was facing emergency conditions as the coronavirus spread inside jails and prisons.
The rules have shifted multiple times since then over who can qualify for home confinement, leaving many vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Some advocacy groups are demanding an investigation into why Circle Bear was transferred from a jail in South Dakota into federal custody on March 20 to Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Her death is a national disgrace, and I hope it is a wake-up call,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“The Justice Department should investigate why this happened and take steps to ensure that it never happens again.”
In a statement, BOP spokeswoman Sue Allison said the bureau had already released or transferred to the community “every pregnant inmate that is eligible for such placement.”
In the case of Circle Bear, “there was insufficient time to consider a request for home confinement” because she got sick shortly after her arrival in Fort Worth, Allison said.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bill Berkrot)