Waylon Young Bird, a 52-year-old federal prisoner with severe kidney disease, did not give up after his request for compassionate release was denied in June due to COVID-19 risks.
That same week, he wrote a letter to his judge asking for mercy. Then another day or two later.
“I’m writing again because this morning, at about 10 a.m., a prisoner next to me said, ‘He’s here, boss,'” wrote Young Bird, a South Dakota Indian.
“Officially now, the first case of coronavirus is here at Springfield Medical Center, Michigan.”
Young Bird was imprisoned in the facility since September 2019 on an 11-year sentence for distributing methamphetamine. About 840 prisoners with severe medical problems are accommodated in the institution.
As the summer dragged on and the coronavirus raged throughout 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 soon spread, did not want to die behind bars, and longed to see his disabled sister and his four children “who need me.”
On August 7, he told the judge that he learned that “Auntie’s mother” Joan Young Bird had died and that she wanted to attend her funeral.
Finally, in a letter dated October 28, he wrote that dozens of prisoners in his ward had tested positive, but so far he had been one of the lucky ones.
“I am afraid I may become infected while reading this letter,” he wrote. “Please, as a compassionate judge, can you help me in this situation.”
Young Bird tested positive for the virus the next day. He died exactly a week later, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
“It’s very difficult for me to understand,” said one of his daughters, Casino Brewer, 26. “I just feel like he’s been ignored.”
Three other prisoners at the Springfield facility died 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 of a federal institution housing seriously ill prisoners is a nightmare scenario, experts say.
“We have a lot of vulnerable people in one place, and my experience is that prison medical centers don’t work with the same level of infection control we find in community hospitals,” said Dr. Homer Venter, former chief medical officer of New York. prison system.
“It can have devastating consequences.”
Venter, who now works as an expert health consultant in correctional facilities, has inspected 18 state and federal prisons since the pandemic. The Springfield facility was not among them.
He said it was crucial that prisons could isolate infected patients and still provide them with a high level of care. However, he found that prisons often provided insufficient Covid-19 screening for prisoners and staff and did not provide the appropriate training and personal protective equipment needed to ensure a safe environment.
“These are things that were on the radar for everyone in municipal hospitals until April, but my experience is that prison hospitals even today do not function with the high level of infection control and PPE needed to protect high-risk patients,” Venter added. who is the president of community-oriented health correction systems, a nonprofit that works to improve health care behind bars.
Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal prison system this spring to increase the use of house arrests and speed up the release of eligible high-risk prisoners.
Prisons are expected to give priority to prisoners who have served half of their sentence or prisoners with a remainder of 18 months or less and who have served at least 25 percent of their time.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the agency has released 17,530 prisoners at home.
Federal inmates may also be released earlier through a compassionate release, which is authorized by a judge and is equivalent to a reduction in sentence until the time served. But prisoners must first apply to the institution’s warden. After the warden rejects the request or 30 days have passed without a response, the prisoner may apply to his sentencing judge.
According to data collected by the Marshall Project, federal prison wardens deny or ignore more than 98 percent of compassionate requests for release.
“Most people who are at high risk in prison are still in prison,” Venter said.
Young Bird was not the only Springfield prisoner to die from Covid-19 after being denied a request to be released from the virus-affected facility. At least two other inmates who also suffered from kidney disease, Torik Lyles and David Cross, also succumbed to the coronavirus after their offers were turned down, according to court documents.
The prison bureau said it could not comment on specific inmates and did not directly answer questions about the outbreak at the Springfield facility. But the agency said it had taken a series of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus in its institutions and “has become a leader in the correction of the pandemic.”
A spokesman 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 in the Indian reserve of the Cheyenne River, officers found 10 grams of metamfunction hidden in his sock in eight bags. A federal jury convicted him of one count of conspiracy to distribute and one possession of intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Young Bird first applied for compassionate release in November 2019, just two months after arriving at the Springfield prison. He cited a number of health problems, including kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes and asthma, according to court documents.
Young Bird was on dialysis for kidney disease, his heart was beating at half the normal rate and one of his toes was amputated due to diabetes, the documents said.
The warden rejected his request on the grounds that his condition was not incurable and that his life expectancy was more than 18 months.
As the Covid-19 crisis worsened, Young Bird appealed to the judge who convicted him.
In his lawsuit, Young Bird’s attorney argued that his serious health condition, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, was an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce his sentence to length of service or to impose a period of house arrest.
At the time, Young Bird had written a letter to his home newspaper apologizing to the Sioux River people on the Cheyenne River for “hurting me because of drugs and alcohol.”
“I was addicted to methamphetamine (crystal meth) and alcohol, a legal drug,” Young Bird wrote. “Both are very difficult to get off there in the free world. I have disappointed many of my people and I have a lot of shame and regret. “
The government opposed his release, saying in court documents that he still posed a danger to society. Eventually, Judge Lang rejected the request, saying it was unclear to what extent Young Bird’s life was in danger of the virus and that the Bureau of Prisons had “taken precautions to protect him and his roommates.”
Reached for comment after Young Bird’s death, Lange said a change in circumstances would make him more susceptible to the release of the sick prisoner.
“If he had endured a little more time and had a little more punishment, I would probably have looked at his compassionate release proposal in a different way,” Lang told NBC News.
Complicating the situation, Lange said the Sioux tribe of the Cheyenne River had driven the Young Bird out of his home because of a drug conviction.
“This person can literally go out on the street in need of dialysis, which is forbidden for the home community,” Lange said. “My God, what are you doing?”
“I am very saddened by his death,” the judge added. “It’s horrible how the virus has affected prisoners in both federal and state detention, and I just wish Mr. Young Bird’s family the best.”
Young Bird has written Lange a total of 17 letters since mid-March. The prolific letter writer never mentions what he did shortly before his arrest.
After her sister’s death, Young Bird hosted a big dinner in Dupree, South Dakota, to honor her memory. It ended with an extraordinary act of generosity, family members said.
“He buys blankets, sweaters, socks, dream hunters – everything you can think of,” says his aunt Joe Lynn. “He just handed them over to the homeless in the community. It was something I will never forget. “
After Young Bird’s death, Little Wound wanted to do the same to honor him.
But the virus has intensified in North Dakota.
There would be no big dinner. No gifts.
About 100 family members gathered at a cemetery last Saturday, where three singers from a nearby Indian reservation sang a prayer song before Young Bird’s body was lowered to the ground.