April 29, 2020 / 1:13 AM / 2 months ago

U.S. federal inmate dies of COVID-19 weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator

Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. U.S. Bureau of Prisons/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A 30-year-old woman serving a 26-month sentence for maintaining a drug-affiliated business died of COVID-19 on Tuesday several weeks after giving birth to her child while she was on a ventilator, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said.

The death of Andrea Circle Bear, the first female federal inmate to succumb to the respiratory disease, and the circumstances surrounding it will likely fuel more anger among criminal justice reform advocates and families of incarcerated relatives who have criticized the Justice Department for a confusing rollout of rules to release non-violent offenders into home confinement.

Attorney General William Barr in late March ordered the Bureau of Prisons (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 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, the families of inmates have complained as the rules shifted several times over who could qualify to be released home. In some cases, inmates were moved into a 14-day quarantine required prior to release, only to discover later they were no longer eligible and transferred back to their cells.

At least 30 federal inmates have died since March of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and 1,313 eainmates have tested positive, according to the BOP.

Circle Bear was transported from a jail in South Dakota on March 20 to Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, and quarantined on arrival. She was taken to a hospital on March 28 amid concerns about her pregnancy, and released back to prison the same day. By March 31, she had developed a fever and a cough and returned to the hospital for treatment.

She was placed on a ventilator, and gave birth to her son the next day by cesarean section. She tested positive for COVID-19 on April 4 and died on Tuesday.

A BOP spokesman had no immediate comment on whether she qualified for home confinement or how many other inmates are pregnant.

A Justice Department representative told Reuters earlier this month that the BOP had discretion to let inmates serve their terms at home and was reviewing more eligible inmates each day. More than 1,700 have been placed in home confinement to date.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney

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