Case Study

"I’m Not Faking!": Abandoned to Death in a Prison Cell (US)

Case study

Sarah Lee Circle Bear was a 25-year old Native American mother who died while in custody at the Brown County Jail in Aberdeen, South Dakota. On July 3rd, Circle Bear was arrested following a traffic accident and placed in Roberts County Jail. Later, she was moved to Brown County. Throughout her stay in jail, Circle Bear demonstrated signs of detrimental physical health as she was shuffled between jail cells. No one really bothered to help her. On July 5th, she was found unresponsive in her jail cell.



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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.

Who is Sarah Lee Circle Bear?

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee Circle Bear was born in Eagle Butte, South Dakota on October 31st, 1990. She was a Native American women (Lakota) and the mother of two young boys: one was two years old, the other was one. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest and death.


Sarah Lee Circle Bear


Taken into Custody

On July 3rd, Sarah Lee Circle Bear was a passenger in car  driven by her boyfriend Wayne Pahl. The car became involved in a high speed police chase and crashed. Pahl and Circle Bear were both arrested and taken to Roberts County Jail. At Roberts County, Circle Bear informed officials that she had taken meth before being arrested and brought to jail. Later, officials would claim that she was asked on three occasions if she had taken any illegal drugs, saying no each time. Circle Bear was eventually transferred to Brown County Jail.

Circle Bear: From Disruptive to “Dangerous”

While in her cell at Brown County Jail, Circle Bear complained about ongoing stomach pains. Jail staff claimed they had assisted Circle Bear with her complaints—such as providing Tylenol for her pain. During a visit with the jail’s clinical therapist, the therapist noted that Circle Bear appeared to be withdrawing from a chemical substance. The therapist also stated that Sarah needed to be under suicide watch. Over the course of the next couple of days, the staff regarded Circle Bear as “disruptive,” especially as she continued to voice and exhibit physical and mental discomfort. Jail staff noted that Circle Bear’s behavior was “scaring people by the way she was talking.” The staff labelled Circle Bear as dangerous, describing her as a threat to herself and other inmates.

Blaming Circle Bear

On July 5th, Circle Bear was found unconscious in her cell. The Brown County Jail staff “immediately” requested Emergency Medical Service (EMS) dispatch upon finding her unresponsive. However, Circle Bear passed away.

Following her death, the Division of Criminal Investigation of the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the death.

On September 3, 2005, the Attorney General released a statement about the findings of the investigation. The Attorney General placed the blame for the death squarely on Circle Bear, noting that she died as a result of having ingested fatal amounts of methamphetamine before her arrest:

“Final autopsy results were released and confirmed that Circle Bear had died as a result of acute methamphetamine/amphetamine toxicity. Toxicology analysis of blood obtained at autopsy was positive for a toxic and lethal concentration of methamphetamine. The autopsy further showed no further evidence of injury which would have caused or contributed to her death.”


Click here

Rockwell, Daisy, & Motsuka. (n.d.). Sarah Lee Circle Bear. Retrieved from Othering and Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern website:

Uncertainties in Death:
Uncovering Negligence Since the Moment of Arrest

A Different Story

While the Attorney General’s statement depicts Circle Bear as solely responsible for her death, there were many signs pointing to her deteriorating mental and physical condition during her stay in jail. These warning signs indicate that Brown County Jail could have taken action to address Circle Bear’s condition and save her life. But the Jail displayed negligence in relation to Circle Bear’s health.

Evidence of Risk

There are a number of Brown County Jail records indicating that Circle Bear’s was at risk of physical and mental health problems. For instance, once in custody, jail staff recorded a “pending charge” for the ingestion of drug substance. The South Dakota Public Health Laboratory also disclosed that Circle Bear had 44868 mg/mL of methamphetamine in her body. These two reports suggest that Circle Bear was at risk of suffering from having ingested drugs. Additionally, medical records indicate that Circle Bear was given Tylenol while in jail even though she was allergic to it.

“Quit Faking”

While in custody at Brown County Jail, Circle Bear increasingly showed signs of methamphetamine overdose. She moaned in pain for hours, moving constantly in her cell. She also rocked back and forth continuously. Generally, Circle Bear acted agitated, anxious, and disoriented. But jail staff refused to attend to her complaints. At one point, Circle Bear even pressed an emergency button in her cell and complained about pain in her stomach. Instead of acting, the jail staff demonstrated complete disregard. They responded to her suffering by yelling back, “quit faking!” and “knock it off!” The staff even made comments such as “Oh Sarah … you always do this when you are in jail.” Despite the constant requests for help, the jail staff did not take any steps to assess Circle Bear’s physical state. In fact, not event vitals signs (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, weight, or height) were taken.

The persistent assumption that Circle Bear was “faking it” recalls the treatment of 22 year old Yamatji-Nanda/Banjima woman Ms Dhu, in a Western Australian police cell, as documented in the case study ‘At a Lethal Intersection: the Killing of Ms Dhu (Australia)‘. Both women were seriously unwell however authorities refused to believe them, instead forming the racist opinion that they were disruptive and misbehaving, rather than genuinely in severe pain and requiring urgent medical care.

Leaving Her to Die

Circle Bear received no medical care from any nurse, doctor, or trained medical personnel while at Roberts County Jail and Brown County Jail. Given her medical history report and behavioral signs, it is clear that Circle Bear required vigilance, compassion, and medical attention. Brown County Jail’s lack of care highlights that Circle Bear’s life was regarded with indifference. They essentially left her to die. She died because the jail failed to act on the signs of methamphetamine overdose.

What Is Happening Now?

Circle Bear’s family is seeking justice. As of June 2018, Circle Bear’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The plaintiff consists of Scott T. Kuck as the personal representative of the estate of Sarah Lee Circle Bear. The defendants include Sheriff Mark Milbdrant of Brown County, Sheriff Jay Tasa of Roberts County, Deputy Andy Miller, Trooper Jerry Kastein, and other jail medical staff supervisors, officers, and staff. The basic claim is that the defendants “breached their duties to Sarah including but not limited to: negligence in the care, management, and treatment of Circle Bear…. Defendants’ negligence was reckless, willful, wanton, and in callous disregard of Sarah’s healthcare needs.” The entire legal case contains a variety of documents and exhibits ranging from Medication Administration Records to Exhibit of EMS Report to Therapist and Inmates Notes.



Legal Case


Exhibits in Legal Case
Click here

Rabada, Carles, & Unsplash. (2018, March). Alcatraz Island Ferry Terminal, San Francisco, United States. Retrieved from

Police Violence Against Native Americans

Ongoing Police Violence

The case of Sarah Lee Circle Bear has to be understood in the context of ongoing police violence against indigenous peoples in the United States. Between 1999 to 2014, Native Americans were the racial/ethnic group most likely to be killed by police authorities (even more likely than African Americans) [Males: 2016 study]. They were also 3.1 times more likely to be killed than White Americans [Woodard: In These Times study]. In 2016, 21 Native Americans were killed by law enforcement, which was double the number from the year before. It is important to note that incidences of police brutality against Native American are likely to be much higher. Violence against them tends to be underreported because officers routinely misidentify them racially as Latina/o, African American, or White. Violence against Native Americans also takes the form of confinement in prisons. The number of Native Americans in prison is four times the national average and their number, per capita,  in federal prison is 38% above the national average.











Investigation: Who Are Police Killing?

Police Brutality: All Too Familiar Cases

Native Americans and their mental health is also dismissed and disregarded by law enforcement. Such dismissal of mental health and the violent responses from law enforcement is evident in the cases of Paul Castaway and Loreal Tsingine.

The Case of Paul Castaway

Paul Castaway was shot and killed by Denver police officer Michael Traudt. On July 12th, 2015, Paul broke into his mother’s, Lilian Castaway, residence and poked her on the neck with a knife. He was drunk and appeared to be having a psychotic episode. Paul had a history schizophrenia. In a call for help, Lilian dialed 911 (emergency services). Police officers Michael Traudt and Jerry Lara responded to the call. When they arrived at the scene, they encountered Castaway running away. Castaway then proceeded to hold the knife to his own throat. At no time did he threaten the officers. He only threatened to kill himself. After moving towards the officers, the knife still at his own throat, and not complying with an order to release the knife, Traudt pointed his service weapon and shot Castaway three times, striking him twice. So instead of providing a mentally ill man with help, police officers killed him.

After a Denver Police Department investigation, the Denver District Attorney determined that Castaway’s killing was legally justified since the officers feared for their lives.

Seeking Justice

JULY 12, 2015 – Castaway’s death

Video footage:

SEPT 15, 2015 – District Attorney’s letter justifying killing. To view the letter, click this link:  District Attorney’s Report

JULY 11, 2016 – Lilian Castaway and her family file a wrongful death lawsuit. To view the legal case, click this link: Wrongful Death Lawsuit

OCT 26, 2017 – A US District Court judge denies a motion to dismiss the case and it remains alive

The Case of Loreal Tsingine

Loreal Tsingine was shot and killed by Winslow, Arizona police officer Austin Shipley. On March 27th, 2016, Shipley responded to a shoplifting call concerning Tsingine. Shipley arrived as Tsingine was walking down a street. He tried to forcibly place her in handcuffs, dragging her to the floor. Tsingine was able to stand back up however. After she did so, she walked toward Shipley with a small pair of scissors. Shipley responded by throwing her to the ground anew. When Tsingine stood back up again, Shipley fired five shots at her and killed her.

Like Castaway, Tsingine had a history of mental illness—a history to which the Winslow Police Department was privy. And again, instead of helping a mentally ill person, the police responded with violence. Tsingine’s killing was also deemed justified.

A Failure of Justice

March 27, 2016 – Tsingine’s death

Video footage:

JULY 22, 2016 – Press Release stating that no local criminal charges would be filed against Shipley. To view the Press Release, click this link:  Press Release on Loreal Tsingine

October 22, 2016 – Department of Justice (DOJ) releases report detailing the findings of an investigation by the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. The investigation concluded that Shipley could not be charged with federal civil rights crimes. To view the DOJ letter, click this link:  Department of Justice Report

March 27, 2018 – The Navajo Nation submitted a Civil Rights Complaint on behalf of Tsingine’s family. To view the entire legal case, click this link:  Civil Rights Complaint


At the same time that Native American suffer from high numbers of deaths at the hands of the state and overrepresentation in prisons, they also experience violence and erasure in the public sphere. Many Native American killings by law enforcement are underreported in the media. And when such killings are reported, Native American tend to be cast in a negative light. They are routinely defamed and denigrated, which influences whether or not law enforcement can be held accountability for a given death:

  • Criminality and deviance is often attributed to the victims

  • Emphasis is placed on the the victim as violent, wild, dangerous

  • Tendency to categorize “criminal” women as “sick”, “mad” or “disturbed”

  • All this defamation leads to a politics of marginalization that become integral to the operation of the criminal justice system—a politics that renders the killing of Native Americans justifiable

Sarah Lee Circle Bear’s killing fits the pattern of the overall narrative of police violence against Native Americans. Her death is a significant example of the ways that Native Americans are located in an invisible, marginalized, and belittled space where they can be eliminated by the state with impunity.

“I’m Not Faking!”: Abandoned to Death in a Prison Cell

This case study was authored by Beatriz Esmeralda Maldonado of the United States hub of the Deathscapes project. The supervising assistance was provided by Professor Jonathan Xavier Inda.

To cite this research: Maldonado, Beatriz Esmeralda. ‘”I’m Not Faking!”: Abandoned to Death in a Prison Cell’. Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States, 2019,

Corresponding author:


Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.