An Eagle Butte, South Dakota, woman who died Tuesday in a Texas hospital less than a month after giving birth reportedly is the first woman to die of COVID-19 while in federal prison custody.
Andrea Circle Bear, who turned 30 in February, is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe based at Eagle Butte, Remi Bald Eagle, tribal spokesman, told the Capital Journal.
He said the tribal government will have no comment at this point.
“We are asking for everyone to respect the privacy of the family,” he said.
Circle Bear, who also has used the name High Bear, was arrested, charged and sentenced in federal court in Pierre during the past year.
She had been charged by indictment March 12, 2019 in Pierre with dealing methamphetamine from a Habitat House in Eagle Butte during two “controlled buys” by confidential informants on April 24 and April 30 in 2018. Circle Bear faced up to 20 years in prison on the initial three counts.
She spent time in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre in 2019 while awaiting the disposition of her case and came to an agreement last fall with prosecutors.
As part of her plea deal, Circle Bear admitted that on April 24, 2018, at “Habitat Housing Number 19” in Eagle Butte, she sold about 2 grams of meth to a federal informant for $400 and packaged the meth from about 8 grams she had at the time. She said on April 30, 2018, she sold about 3.5 grams of meth for $450 to a confidential informant in a similar “controlled buy,” in a parking lot near the Habitat Housing No. 19.
Circle Bear did not live in that “Habitat” residence, but she “used and maintained it” to deal meth, she told the feds.
She received a furlough in November 2019 from the jail in Pierre to attend her divorce hearing in tribal court in Eagle Butte.
When her aunt returned Circle Bear later that day to Pierre, jail officials said they were advised to take her to the state Women’s Prison for a “body scan.”
Circle Bear admitted taking 20 pills of Trazodone, an antidepressant, that day, as well as meth. She also said she swallowed a container of “clean urine,” apparently to use later when given a test.
Asked by jail officials why she had taken meth and the pills, she told them “I had divorce court today and don’t want my husband to get the baby,” according to a federal court document.
After that incident, her own attorney, Jason Rumpca of Pierre, withdrew a request to U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange in Pierre to furlough Circle Bear for weeks of inpatient drug treatment in a Wyoming facility. After learning of her “alleged conduct” following the one-day furlough, Rumpca told Lange in a motion to withdraw that it “is no longer in (Circle Bear’s) best interests to be released on furlough to attend inpatient treatment in Sheridan, Wyoming.”
On Jan. 15, 2020, Judge Lange sentenced Circle Bear to 26 months in federal prison and recommended it be one with a medical facility “given she is pregnant and due to deliver a child in early May of 2020.”
She was held in the Winner (S.D.) City Jail in Winner until she was transported March 20 by the U.S. Marshals Service to Federal Medical Facility Carswell in Fort Worth.
The City Jail in Winner is a regional jail with 132 beds serving the county and run by Administrator Lori Kalenda . As with several regional jails in the state, including the Hughes County Jail, the Winner City Jail sees mostly federal inmates. Usually more than half of the beds in Winner are occupied by “federal holds,” people awaiting disposition of their cases in federal court, Jeff Auspurger, assistant jail administrator, told the Capital Journal.
There are no federal prisons for women in the Dakotas, Nebraska or Wyoming. The nearest to Pierre is in Waseca, Minnesota, and it’s relatively small and without a medical facility.
FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas is one of BOP’s “administrative facilities,” which means it has a “special mission,” which can include the “treatment of inmates with serious or chronic medical problems,” according to the Bureau of Prisons. It had 1,625 inmates as of Wednesday, April 29 all women, the BOP reports.
When Circle Bear was transported to Fort Worth on March 20, she was “immediately placed in quarantine per the BOP’s current COVID-19 procedures,” according to a news release from the BOP.
On March 28, she was evaluated by Carswell health services staff and “transported to the local hospital due to potential concerns regarding her pregnancy. After evaluation by the local hospital staff, Ms. Circle Bear was discharged the same day and taken back to FMC Carswell.
On Tuesday, March 31, she had a “fever, dry cough and other symptoms,” and again was taken to the local hospital and put on a ventilator.
On April 1, her baby was delivered by cesarean section; a month or more earlier than her due date that was pegged in court documents.
On April 4, Circle Bear was confirmed as positive for COVID-19.
“On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear, who had a pre-existing medical condition which the CDC lists as a risk factor for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, was pronounced dead by hospital staff,” according to the BOP news release on April 28.
Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Gary Bunt, who works from Sioux Falls, said he had no information to release about Circle Bear and referred the Capital Journal to the Bureau of Prisons’ news release.
The BOP officials said there have been 30 deaths of federal inmates from COVID-19, including three in Fort Worth. Women make up only 7% of the BOP’s population and Circle Bear is the only female inmate to die of COVID-19.
According to the Washington Post, family members in Eagle Butte are caring for Circle Bear’s baby.
In response to Capital Journal questions, Scott Taylor of the BOP’s public affairs office in Washington, replied via email:
“As part of the BOP’s responsive Action Plan for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have limited inmate movement as much as possible and have done so in cooperation with the U.S. Marshals Service. As a direct result of these steps, BOP movement nationwide is down 95% when comparing March 13, 2020, to April 23, 2020, to the same time frame last year.”
“While inmate movement is being limited as much as possible, the BOP is still required to accept inmates awaiting trial remanded to our custody,” Taylor said.
In a separate but related matter, the ACLU of South Dakota said Wednesday it was filing Freedom of Information Act requests with Gov. Kristi Noem, the state Department of Corrections, and the federal Bureau of Prisons as part of a nationwide ACLU move.
The FOIA requests “seek information on what the Bureau of Prisons and governors and (state) departments of corrections knew about the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on their prisons and the communities surrounding them,” the statement provided by Janna Farley of ACLU South Dakota reads.
(Capital Journal reporter Joseph Barkoff contributed to this article.)