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Federal prisons reach grim milestone: 100 inmate deaths from coronavirus

The federal Bureau of Prisons reached a grim milestone on Saturday: 100 inmates have died from coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. Among the dead are fathers and mothers, daughters and sons and brothers and sisters — none of whom were sentenced to death.

There are 122 facilities in the federal prison system that hold nearly 129,000 inmates across the country. According to the bureau, over 10,000 inmates have at one point tested positive for the virus, and over 35,000 have been tested.

Of the hundred dead, three female inmates have died from the virus. The first was Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year-old mother who gave birth to her sixth child while on a ventilator.

"I asked [hospital staff] if she even knew about the baby and they said, 'No, she's been on a ventilator,'" Circle Bear's grandmother, Clara LeBeau, told CBS News. "She never even knew she had the baby, and never got the chance to hold the baby."

Circle Bear was convicted on drug charges after she was caught distributing methamphetamine out of her home on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. In January, she was sentenced to 26 months in prison. In late April, she died after contracting the coronavirus, about four weeks after the birth of her daughter.

In March, the bureau had suspended all inmate transfers in response to the pandemic. Despite this, Circle Bear was transferred from the Winner City Jail in South Dakota to the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth on March 20, the bureau said in a release. A week later, she was sent to a local hospital over concerns about her pregnancy.

Circle Bear was discharged but returned two days later, on March 31, after she developed a fever and dry cough. She was placed on a ventilator on April 1, the same day she gave birth to her daughter, Elyciah Elizabeth Ann High Bear. 

Three days later, Circle Bear tested positive for coronavirus. She died on April 28. The bureau said that Circle Bear "had a pre-existing medical condition which the CDC lists as a risk factor for developing more severe COVID-19 disease." 

LeBeau said she wasn't allowed to see Circle Bear when she picked up the child in Texas. Throughout her granddaughter's illness, she maintains she never received word from the bureau updating her on Circle Bear's condition and that her death came as a surprise. 

"I just hope something could be done to help other families where they wouldn't have to go through what I did," LeBeau said.

The Bureau of Prisons declined an interview request with Director Michael Carvajal and declined to comment as part of this story. The agency, according to its website, has modified several operations in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, including placing newly arriving inmates in quarantine and screening them, in addition to suspending all visitations. 

Jennifer Jones learned her father, Eric Spiwak, died two days after receiving a call from an unknown North Carolina number. "It was a three-minute and 48-second conversation, and it takes me probably a full minute to realize I am talking to my dad," she said.

"He's gasping for breath and he's like, 'I'm sick,'" Jones said, describing what ended up being her last conversation with her father. She believes that the call came from a burner phone from within the prison and that her father called her because she was his power of attorney, "he starts going into the list of everything that he wanted me to do and he can't even get a whole sentence out."

Spiwak, 73, was serving a 15-year sentence on child pornography charges at the low-security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, one of the facilities hit hardest by the virus. Spiwak and 15 others died at Butner after contracting COVID-19, the bureau said, more than any other federal prison in the country. 

Jones, who was close with her father, had made the decision to distance herself from him about a year ago to work through her own trauma related to conduct Spiwak had been convicted of in the 80s. Her sister was still communicating with him regularly, and was the one who received the phone call from a prison chaplain, informing her that her father had died.

"I absolutely had to take a step back," Jones explained. "For anybody who's ever lost anyone they're close to, particularly so suddenly and without any warning, you don't know how much time you don't have until you don't have it."

The chaplain called less than two days after Jones received the phone call, and she said it was the only official communication her family had with the prison regarding her father's illness.  Looking back, she is thankful for that short phone call with her father because, without it, she and her family would never have known that her father was sick. It was the first time they had spoken in months, "We didn't even get to say 'I love you' to one another."

Many advocates have pushed for expanded use of compassionate release or for the bureau to extend home confinement privileges among more of the prison population. By reducing the number of inmates on the inside, they argue the prisons could utilize social distancing practices and limit exposure.

Congressman Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, has been vocal about his concerns over the inability to practice social distancing in the prison system. "I think that it's reprehensible, it's unfathomable," Rush said in response to the 100 inmate deaths. "It doesn't make sense. Why are we playing Russian roulette with elderly, non-violent prisoners who pose no threat to society?"

In May, when the House passed the Heroes Act, it included Rush's Prison Phone Justice Act passed by the House, which would bar prisons from making commissions on inmates' phone calls, making it easier for them to remain in contact with their loved ones during the pandemic.

For Rush, it's personal. In 1972, the former member of the Black Panther movement was imprisoned for six months on what he calls a trumped-up weapons charge. 

"I think the Bureau of Prisons and the judicial system should recognize this critical problem and they should move immediately, if not sooner, to eliminate this problem and to release these elderly prisoners," he said.

In March, Attorney General William Barr instructed the bureau to broaden the use of home confinement among older inmates with underlying conditions in response to the pandemic. Since then, they reported more than 7,000 inmates had been released into the program.

That figure is not enough, said Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and director of the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

"These are deaths that did not need to happen," Dolovich said. "There were clear steps that the BOP had available for many months that would have reduced the risk inside, and they have shown total unwillingness to take those steps. As a result, people are dying."

Dolovich and her team of researchers track virus cases within the country's state and federal correctional facilities. As of Monday, more than 82,000 inmates have been infected and 735 have died, according to the project. It said there were over 19,300 cases among staffers and 56 deaths.

The bureau reports that only one federal prison employee, Charlynn Phillips, who was employed at Butner, died in June after contracting the virus.

The bureau, however, does not count the death of one other staff member, Robin Grubbs, who passed away in April. Grubbs, a 39-year-old case manager at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, posthumously tested positive for the virus. However, her cause of death was never determined to be due to COVID-19 because an autopsy was not completed. 

Grubbs had been promoted just a month before her death, a role that would have moved her out of an area that put her in proximity to inmates who had been exposed to the virus. She was an Army veteran and who worked for the prison for over a decade.

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