The Federal Bureau of Prisons has now seen 100 inmate deaths as a result of the coronavirus.
Three female inmates are among the dead. Andrea Circle Bear was the first woman to succumb to the virus while in prison back in April. The 30-year-old mother gave birth to her sixth child, a daughter, while on a ventilator and passed away nearly four weeks later. She had been sentenced in January to 26 months for distributing methamphetamine.
“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, revealed to CBS News. “She never even knew she had the baby and never got the chance to hold the baby.”
There are currently 122 facilities in the federal prison system that house nearly 129,000 inmates across the United States. According to the federal bureau, over 10,000 inmates have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic. Over 35,000 inmates have been tested.
Eric Spiwak, a 73-year-old who was serving a 15-year sentence on child pornography charges in a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, was one of 16 inmates who died at the facility after contracting COVID-19. They have seen more deaths than any other federal prison in the country.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, advocates are pushing for prison alternatives such as compassionate release or the increased use of home confinement to reduce the number of inmates on the inside, which would allow prisons to enforce social distancing and limit possible exposure.
In March, some progress was made on these efforts. Attorney General William Barr directed the bureau to broaden the use of home confinement among older inmates with underlying conditions. This factor would put them at a higher risk for serious complications if they were to contract the coronavirus. More than 7,000 inmates had been released into the program following the directive.
Illinois Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush also voiced 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?”
Rush’s Prison Phone Justice Act was passed in May when the house passed the Heroes Act. This act bars prisons from making commissions on inmates’ phone calls, which will make it easier for inmates to remain in contact with their loved ones during the pandemic.
Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and director of the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, and her team of researchers track virus cases throughout the country’s state and federal correctional facilities. While federal prisons have just now reached 100 deaths, 735 inmates have died between state and federal facilities combined. More than 82,000 inmates have been infected, and there were over 19,300 cases among staffers and 56 deaths.
“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.”