Cary Aspinwall, Keri Blankinger and Joseph Neff - May 14, 2020
Melissa Ann Horn’s name appeared over and over in court records and jail blotters in the rural Virginia county where she was born, and where she was arrested for crimes related to her struggles with meth and money.
When she died April 14 of coronavirus she contracted in a state prison for women, Virginia officials wouldn’t even say her name.
Women are the less visible victims of COVID-19 behind bars—as they are so often overlooked in a criminal justice system that was not designed for them. Though only a small number have died—at least 13 reported as of Wednesday—their stories illuminate the unique problems women face in prison. They also reflect the all-too-common ways they get there in the first place: drug addiction and violence involving the men in their lives.
One of the victims was days away from giving birth to her sixth child, but first had to report to prison 900 miles away from her South Dakota home, for a federal drug conviction. Another was a 61-year-old New York woman who survived a life marred by trauma and violence, only to die from the virus. A third was a North Carolina prisoner with a model record, who had served decades of a life sentence for a murder committed by a male accomplice in the aftermath of an armed robbery.
Far more men are locked up in prisons in the U.S. and far more of them have died from coronavirus outbreaks, according to figures compiled by The Marshall Project.
But women in crowded prisons are as much at risk. The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, south of Baton Rouge, has 165 COVID-19 positive prisoners, the most of any facility in that state. Two women have died, and nearly every prisoner in one dormitory has the virus. And in Connecticut, a federal judge Tuesday ordered Bureau of Prison officials to speed up their process to release prisoners at risk, including women at Danbury prison.
After every female death, corrections officials have highlighted pre-existing medical conditions that made the women easier targets for the virus. But few prison officials appear to be considering those same risk factors and actually releasing many women before an outbreak.
Melissa Horn was the first prisoner to die from COVID-19 in Virginia, but her story is common among the women incarcerated there: Drug addiction and probation violations led to frequent stays in jail, then prison.
Horn, 49, was sent to prison in 2016 on convictions that included manufacturing meth and violating probation on a previous charge of larceny, records show.
Her problems with drugs went back decades in rural Tazewell County, near the West Virginia border, where she struggled to get clean—first from pills, then meth. Her daughter, Brittany Brown, remembers being 5 years old when her mom was arrested for shoplifting. It was a minor crime, but it set off years of trouble with the law. Horn owed thousands of dollars in court fines, and had trouble paying them and staying out of jail, Brown said.
“She’s not a monster like they made her out to be,” Brown said. “She loved her family. She just wanted to be happy, that’s all.”
Chase Collins, the lawyer who in 2015 was appointed to defend Horn because she couldn’t afford to hire one, said her struggles with addiction and poverty reflected many of his indigent defense clients.
“There’s a lot of trauma that bears itself out when you look at these criminal records,” said Collins, who now handles government business as the county attorney, referring to Horn’s history. “You’re stealing something to pawn for drugs, or you’re getting into a fight because you’re on drugs. Usually they catch you for the non-drug related things first.”
Shoplifting was how Horn first landed behind bars, due to a law in Virginia that makes a third shoplifting conviction a felony charge, regardless of the dollar value, Collins said. He recalled another woman whose third shoplifting offense was taking streamers and balloons from Walmart for her young daughter’s birthday.
The Virginia Department of Corrections’ announcement of Horn’s death April 14 did not name her, citing the family’s privacy and medical confidentiality. It said a female prisoner had been taken to a hospital in Richmond on April 4, where she tested positive for coronavirus. The press release emphasized her “underlying health conditions,” including asthma and hepatitis C.
Brown, Horn’s daughter, said she was upset by the bare-bones statement from corrections officials highlighting only her mother’s criminal charges and pre-existing conditions.
“I didn’t think that was fair,” Brown said. “I got three copies of her death certificate. It doesn't say hepatitis C on it, it says coronavirus.”
The state medical examiner confirmed that Horn died of COVID-19.
The vast majority of women behind bars are mothers—by some estimates, as many as 80 percent. Many were raising kids on their own before getting locked up. And measures to slow the virus, including eliminating prison visitation and restricting access to phones, have cut off communication to their children and families on the outside.
For Native American women, family connections often endure extra strain during incarceration. Indigenous women are frequently prosecuted in federal court for low-level drug crimes that occur on reservation land, so they often serve time at prisons far away from their children and families, said Isabel Coronado, who studies the effect of criminal justice policy on Native communities for Next100, a progressive policy think tank.
“Some children are going years without seeing their parents because they’re in federal prisons,” Coronado said. “Indigenous families suffer extra.”
When Andrea Circle Bear, a citizen of the Cheyenne Sioux River tribe, was transferred from jail in her home state of South Dakota to a federal prison in Texas, she left five children behind.
But she carried one with her, as she arrived at a federal prison near Fort Worth eight months pregnant. Within a few days, she was taken to a hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms that turned out to be COVID-19.
She talked to her grandmother Clara LeBeau one last time, on the phone from a Fort Worth hospital. The following day, LeBeau recalled, hospital staff called to tell her that her granddaughter was on a ventilator and the baby had been delivered by emergency Cesarean section.
“I thought she would come out of it,” LeBeau said. Circle Bear died three weeks later, never getting a chance to meet or hold her baby.
Now, the 70-year-old LeBeau is caring for her newborn great-granddaughter: Elyciah Elizabeth Ann High Bear. LeBeau drove more than 1,000 miles to pick up the baby from the hospital in Texas.
Circle Bear had been sentenced to two years as part of a plea deal, for “maintaining a drug-involved” house where methamphetamine was sold. Before she reported to prison, her family wrote letters to a federal judge, asking him to consider her children and let her serve time close to home. Circle Bear was going through a divorce and was heartbroken, her grandmother said, adding that she tried to get drug treatment close to home, but no beds were available.
“She had all her kids and couldn’t get away to appointments,” LeBeau said. “She was just frustrated. It made her look bad, or like she did not cooperate, but she was trying. She really did try, I know that.”
Felicity Rose studies why more women are being sent to prison in states like Arizona and Oklahoma, as research and policy director for FWD.us, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform. Often, she sees women, like Circle Bear, serving lengthy prison sentences for relatively minor drug crimes.
“In many cases they’re not even doing the crimes they’re convicted of—they’re with a partner or family member who is, and in the same house or the car where drugs are found,” Rose said.
Circle Bear’s death could have been avoided, Rose said.
“There’s no evidence that putting her in prison for any amount of time would ever help anyone,” Rose said. “And now, not only is it not improving anyone’s public safety—it’s actually taken a mother away from a tiny, brand-new baby who needs her, as well as her other children.”
Several of the coronavirus deaths reflect how women enter prison with more physical and mental health issues than their male counterparts, which makes them even more vulnerable.
Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay had survived a life of trauma, including sexual abuse, and made it through a 2018 outbreak of H1N1 flu at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the state’s only maximum security prison for women. When COVID-19 arrived, she was not as lucky. She died April 28.
Approaching her 62nd birthday, Benson-Seay had a “bop to her step” from a bad hip, according to Vanessa Santiago, who befriended Benson-Seay in prison. Her friend had one lung, a bad heart and had suffered several strokes, Santiago said.
The two women bonded over card games and cooking, sharing Thanksgiving meals made on the prison hot plates even though they had to break the rules to do it.
As a child, Benson-Seay was sexually assaulted by family members and beaten into a coma, The New Republic reported. In 1966, when she was just 8, her mother was reportedly stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Santiago said Benson-Seay’s history of abuse affected how her friend handled prison: she refused to shower in the unit’s bathroom after someone looked over the stall while she was inside, reflecting her past trauma. Instead, Benson-Seay took “bird baths” in the sink.
She was serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, after she was accused of fatally stabbing her boyfriend, Ronald Wilson, in Buffalo in 2012. Several of her friends and family maintained the crime was at the least self-defense, or that she may have pleaded guilty to a stabbing that someone else committed, only because she feared receiving as long as 25 years.
Compared to men, women are far less commonly incarcerated for violent crimes like manslaughter—the vast majority are locked up for property and drug crimes. In many cases where women are sent to prison for a violent crime, the attack may involve self-defense or retaliation against an abuser. The Detroit Free Press reported this was the case for Susan Farrell, a woman who died in April of COVID-19 in a Michigan prison while serving a life sentence for killing the husband she said abused her for years.
A violent crime also led to prison for Faye Brown, who died of COVID-19 on May 6 while locked up in North Carolina. Brown, who had been in prison for more than four decades, was by all accounts a model prisoner. While serving time, she once worked in a homeless shelter and then in a popular "meat-and-three" diner. Since 2005, she had worked full-time at a cosmetology school. She took home leave most weekends, staying with a niece in Raleigh or with her mother 100 miles away.
But she had a politically unmovable barrier to being released permanently: her involvement in a botched 1975 bank robbery that ended in the murder of a state trooper—a crime that even became a political flashpoint a decade ago.
Brown, 22 at the time of the killing, was in the front passenger seat of the getaway car when the trooper pulled them over. An accomplice in the back seat killed the officer with a shotgun. Brown hadn’t pulled the trigger, but was convicted of felony murder—in effect, being an accomplice—and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life, defined as 80 years by law.
Brown was quiet, prayerful and generous, said Miea Walker, who served nine years with her. And forceful. When women in the prison dorm squabbled or fought, Walker said the soft-spoken Brown would intervene, saying “Okay, that’s not happening. Everyone goes to bed.”
After Benson-Seay’s death in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of at least eight pregnant women at the same prison. Five have been released so far, according to the Legal Aid Society, the nonprofit advocating for the release of all pregnant inmates in state custody.
Santiago, Benson-Seay’s friend, believes she should have been released before the virus spread through the prison.
“She was older and she did a lot of her time,” Santiago said. “She had compromising medical conditions.
“Her biggest fear was to die in there.”
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