Her name was Andrea High Bear, but the news stories used her married name, Andrea Circle Bear. The last time we spoke, she asked me to tell her children she loved them and told me she was afraid. The prison was putting her in quarantine. The last time I saw her, it was on a video call from the local hospital where she’d been moved, and she was unconscious. I asked the nurses to hold the phone to her ear and told her to wake up.
The baby was born April 1. Her name is Elyciah Elizabeth Ann High Bear. Andrea never held or even knew she’d had the baby. When Elyciah was discharged on April 19, we drove from South Dakota to pick her up and bring her home. Because of covid-19, we couldn’t see Andrea. She died April 28.
Andrea was sentenced on Jan. 14. Because she’d had five C-sections, the BOP knew she needed medical care; that seems to be why she was sent to Carswell, the only medical facility for women in the federal system — though nobody ever told us the reason, and the BOP didn’t send her until March 20. But the way things ended up, she wasn’t treated at Carswell, the baby wasn’t born there, Andrea didn’t die there — all that happened at the local hospital.
There are so many things the BOP never told us as they were happening: that Andrea was moving out of quarantine to a hospital, that she had covid-19, that she was dying. Any information I ever got was from the hospital, not Carswell.
The only time I heard from the BOP was after she died. The warden at Carswell sent me a letter saying they were taking care of her body until bureau officials could get it sent to us. He said he was sending me his condolences, too.
In prisons and jails right now are granddaughters, daughters, mothers. And some of them are pregnant, and some of them will die, like Andrea. And their families are in the dark. Families like ours are trying our best. We call wardens, prisons and jails every day. No one calls back. If they’re doing everything right, why avoid us?
We’ve been told that members of Congress are upset about vulnerable people such as Andrea being in prison during this pandemic. They should be. What functioning system would wait months to take a pregnant woman and put her on a long airplane flight to a medical facility in the middle of a pandemic? Her jailers should have sent her in January, or just kept her in South Dakota once the pandemic hit.
That kind of decision happens because of layers and layers of bad rules and policies. And all those layers are stuck together with a lack of simple human decency. It’s like at every step of the way, people who had authority said, “I’m just doing my job, I’m sending her here,” when they could have said, “What in the world are we doing here? This isn’t right.”
Andrea was given 26 months for a low-level drug crime — “maintaining a drug-involved premises.” The judge recommended that she do drug treatment in prison, and with credit for that, she would probably have been looking at a year in prison. But instead, now six children don’t have a mom.
When she called me from Texas, Andrea told me how the BOP made her stand on the airport tarmac with no coat on, waiting to board the plane to take her to Carswell. Feeling sick, big pregnant belly, and they made her stand out there and wait with no coat on. In the South Dakota cold in the middle of a pandemic. She told me I shouldn’t worry. I can’t get that out of my mind.
My granddaughter is gone, and now my family is going to pull together to raise her children. If someone from the government asked me how they could help, I would say this: Honor Andrea by making sure no other family has to go through what we have. Pass laws to hold the BOP accountable for the way it’s running things. Require prison officials to let families know what’s going on, every step of the way. No family should suffer like we did. Don’t send me your condolences. It’s too late.