Waylon Young Bird, a 52-year-old federal prisoner with severe kidney disease, did not give up after his request for humanitarian release due to COVID-19 risks was rejected in June.
He wrote a letter to his judge the same week to ask for mercy. Then another a day or two later.
“I’m writing again because this morning at around 10 am an inmate next to me said, ‘This is it, Chief,’” wrote Young Bird, a Native American from South Dakota.
“It is now official, that the first case of coronavirus is here in Springfield, Missouri, medical center.”
Young Bird had been incarcerated in the facility since September 2019 for an 11-year sentence for distributing methamphetamine. The facility accommodates approximately 840 inmates with serious health problems.
As the summer dragged on and the coronavirus raged across Central America, Young Bird continued to write to U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange.
On June 14, he wrote that he feared the virus would start to spread soon, that he did not want to die behind bars and that he wanted to see his disabled sister and her four children “who need me. “.
On August 7, he told the judge he had found out that his “mother aunt,” Joann Young Bird, had died and that he wished to attend her funeral.
And finally, in a letter dated October 28, he wrote that dozens of inmates in his unit had tested positive but was, so far, one of the lucky ones.
“I’m afraid I will be infected by the time you read this letter,” he wrote. “Please, as a compassionate judge, can you help me get through this situation.”
Young Bird tested positive for the virus the next day. He died exactly one week later, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
“It’s hard for me to understand,” said one of her daughters, Casina Brewer, 26. “I just feel like he’s been ignored.
Three other inmates at Springfield Institution died on the same day as Young Bird. At least seven have succumbed to the virus this month alone, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Such an outbreak at a federal facility housing critically ill inmates represents a nightmare scenario, experts say.
“We have very vulnerable people in one place, and my experience is that prison medical centers don’t operate with the same level of infection control that we find in community hospitals,” Dr Homer said. Venters, former Chief Medical Officer of New York City. prison system.
“There can be devastating consequences.”
Venters, who now works as an expert consultant on correctional health services, has inspected 18 state and federal prisons since the pandemic struck. Springfield Institution was not one of them.
He said it was essential for prison medical facilities to be able to isolate infected patients and provide them with a high standard of care. Yet he found that prisons often provide insufficient Covid-19 testing for inmates and staff and fail to provide the proper training and personal protective equipment necessary to ensure a safe environment.
“These are things that were on everyone’s radar in community hospitals in April, but my experience is that prison hospitals, even today, don’t operate with the high level of infection control and PPE that they need to protect high-risk patients, ”added Venters, who is the president of Community Oriented Correctional Health Systems, a non-profit organization that works to improve health care behind bars.
Attorney General William Barr this spring ordered the federal prison system to increase the use of house arrest and speed up the release of eligible high-risk inmates.
The Bureau of Prisons is supposed to prioritize inmates who have served half of their sentence or inmates who are only 18 months old and have served at least 25% of their time.
Since the start of the pandemic, the agency has released 17,530 home detainees.
Federally sentenced inmates can also be released early through compassionate release, which is authorized by a judge and amounts to a reduction in sentence. But inmates must first apply to the warden of the institution. After a warden denies the request or after 30 days have passed without a response, the inmate can then make a request to their sentencing judge.
According to data compiled by The Marshall Project, federal prison guards have refused or ignored more than 98% of compassionate release requests.
“Most of the high-risk people in prison are still in prison,” Venters said.
Young Bird was not the only Springfield inmate to die of Covid-19 after being denied a request to release from the facility affected by the virus. At least two other inmates who also suffered from kidney disease, Torrick Lyles and David Cross, also succumbed to the coronavirus after their offers were rejected, court documents show.
The Bureau of Prisons said it could not comment on specific inmates and did not respond directly to questions about the outbreak at Springfield Institution. But the agency said it had taken a series of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus within its institutions and that it “has become a correctional leader in the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for Springfield Prison Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.
Young Bird was arrested in March 2018 when, during a traffic stop on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, officers found 10 grams of meth hidden in his sock in eight bags. A federal jury found him guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute and one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Young Bird submitted an initial request for humanitarian release in November 2019, just two months after arriving at Springfield Prison Medical Center. He cited a range of health issues, including kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes and asthma, according to court documents.
Young Bird was on dialysis for his kidney disease, his heart was working at half the normal rate and one of his toes was amputated due to diabetes, the documents show.
The director rejected her request on the grounds that her condition was not terminal and her life expectancy was over 18 months.
As the Covid-19 crisis worsened, Young Bird petitioned the judge who convicted him.
In his court application, Young Bird’s attorney argued that his serious health problems, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, were an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce his sentence to time served or impose a period of house arrest.
At that time, Young Bird wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper apologizing to the members of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe: “I am suffering from my drug and alcohol use.
“I was addicted to methamphetamine (crystal meth) and alcohol, a legal drug,” wrote Young Bird. “Both are very hard to get down there in the free world. I have disappointed a lot of my people and I carry a lot of shame and regret. “
The government opposed his release, saying in court documents that he still posed a danger to society. Judge Lange ultimately rejected the request, saying it was not clear to what extent Young Bird’s life was threatened by the virus and that the Prisons Bureau had “taken precautions to protect him and his fellow inmates. “.
Contacted for comment after Young Bird’s death, Lange said a change in circumstances would have made him more willing to release the ill inmate.
“If he had served a little longer and had a little more time, I probably would have viewed his compassionate release motion differently,” Lange told NBC News.
To complicate matters, Lange said, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe had banished Young Bird from their home due to the drug conviction.
“This person could literally be on the street, in need of dialysis, excluded from their home community,” Lange said. “My God, what are you doing?”
“I am very saddened by his death,” added the judge. “It’s terrible how the virus has affected inmates both in federal and state custody, and I just wish Mr. Young Bird’s family the best.
Young Bird wrote Lange a total of 17 letters starting in mid-March. However, the author of the prolific letter never mentioned what he had done shortly before his arrest.
After her sister’s death, Young Bird hosted a big dinner party in the town of Dupree, South Dakota to honor her memory. It ended in an extraordinary act of generosity, his family members said.
“He bought blankets, sweaters, socks, dream catchers – whatever you could think of,” said his aunt Jo Lynn Little Wounded. “He just distributed them to the homeless in the community. It was something that I will never forget.
After Young Bird’s death, Little Wounded wanted to do the same to pay tribute to him.
But the virus was increasing in North Dakota.
There would be no big dinner. No gift.
About 100 family members gathered for a funeral service last Saturday, where three singers from a nearby Indian reservation sang a song of prayer before Young Bird’s body was lowered into the ground.