by Daniel A. Rosen |
Waylon Young Bird, a 52-year-old federal prisoner with serious kidney disease, wrote over a dozen letters to the judge that sentenced him asking for compassionate release. He died of COVID-19 in early November of 2020, a week after his last plea was written.
“I’m afraid I may be infected by the time you read this letter,” Young Bird wrote on October 28 to U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange. “Please as a compassionate judge, can you help me thru this situation.”
Seven inmates died just in the month of November at the Springfield prison medical center where Young Bird was housed, and where he was serving an 11-year sentence for distribution of methamphetamine. He suffered from kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and asthma. The facility houses 840 inmates with serious medical issues.
Experts say that outbreaks at facilities housing sick and vulnerable inmates can create a nightmare scenario. “We have very vulnerable people in one place,” said Dr. Homer Venters, and “there can be devastating consequences.”
Dr. Venters has inspected 18 state and federal prisons since the pandemic began – though Springfield was not one of them – and says “prison medical centers do not operate with the same level of infection controls that we see in community hospitals.” He says that prisons don’t regularly screen inmates and staffers and lack the training and protective gear needed to ensure adequate safety.
Against this backdrop, Young Bird, a Native American from South Dakota, grew increasingly concerned. In June, he wrote Judge Lange that he didn’t want to die behind bars and wanted to again see his four children and his disabled sister.
His initial request to the Warden was denied, on grounds that his health conditon wasn’t terminal, and he faced no imminent end of life. Federal rules allow for inmates to petition their sentencing judge if a Warden denies or fails to respond to their request within 30 days – which is the case 98 percent of the time, according to the Marshall Project.
Young Bird petitioned Judge Lange arguing that his serious health conditions in the midst of the pandemic amounted to an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to allow him home confinement or release him on time served. The government opposed his release, calling him a continued danger to society. Judge Lange decided that Young Bird’s life didn’t appear threatened by the virus, as the Bureau of Prisons had “taken precautions to protect him and his fellow inmates.”
This past spring, Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal BOP to speed up releases of high-risk inmates, and increase the use of home confinement. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the BOP has moved 17,530 inmates to home confinement.
But according to Dr. Venters, “Most of the people who are high risk in prison are still in prison.”
The BOP said it could not comment on specific inmates and didn’t respond directly to questions about conditions at Springfield.
Young Bird’s daughter, Casina Brewer, finds it “very hard to comprehend. I just feel like he was ignored,” she said.