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‘I don’t know when I’ll see his body' | More than 100 days after inmate dies of COVID-19, prison informs his DC family

Fabian Tinsley's family learned of his death by reading about it online, 110 days after he had passed away while serving a 23-year prison sentence.

WASHINGTON — They found out online that their uncle was dead, but they wanted to hear the news directly from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

One hundred thirteen days after Fabian Tinsley died of COVID-19, federal officials contacted the 67-year-old’s D.C. family, informing them of what they already learned through a bad feeling, Google and a North Carolina local news report. Their family member died of coronavirus in April, while his next-of-kin assumed he was still serving a prison sentence.

Tinsley was already embalmed, his relatives said. And as of Monday, his remains were still in the custody of officials with the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C.

But what remained unclear was what caused the prolonged error of notification, and when Tinsley’s body will return to his family in Washington.

“I don’t know when I’ll see his body,” Tinsley’s niece Regina February said. “I don’t even know if it’s his body.”

RELATED: A federal inmate died from COVID-19 in April, but his family still has no idea where his body is

According to both February and a second niece, Latesha Boyd, the Bureau of Prisons informed them that there was a blank space on Tinsley’s emergency notification form.

“But they did have my last address and my name,” Boyd said. “So, I don’t know why I didn’t receive a notification letter.”

A spokesperson with the bureau confirmed Monday only that his family had received formal notification of his death.

Questions concerning whether other families could be affected by similar potential lapses, and whether an investigation is ongoing, remained unanswered.

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed last week that Tinsley was incarcerated for kidnapping and aggravated assault while armed. He was sentenced in D.C. Superior Court to a 23-year prison sentence, with family expecting his release in March 2025.

Tinsley’s family hadn’t heard from him for months. It was simply an undercurrent of unease his brother felt last Tuesday that set in motion the urgent attempts to check in on him.

According to the Tinsley family, an initial phone call to the prison last week ended with employees reporting the inmate was no longer in their custody.

When February went online to review Tinsley’s incarceration record, “deceased” read as the final detail underneath his name.

“He was a good person. I mean, as far as what he did, out in the street or whatever the case may be, he was a family person,” February said. “I understood him like he was my father.”

Local North Carolina media reported an April news release from the prison, listing Tinsley as the fifth inmate to die from COVID-19 in the facility.

“On April 6, 2020, inmate Fabian Tinsley, went into respiratory failure at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Butner I, in Butner, North Carolina,” the news release read. “He was evaluated by institutional medical staff and transported to a local hospital for further treatment and evaluation.”

While at the hospital outside the prison walls, Tinsley tested positive for COVID-19. He was placed on a ventilator and died 10 days later.

“On Thursday, April 16, 2020, Mr. Tinsley, who had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions which the CDC lists as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, was pronounced dead by hospital staff,” the bureau said.

The Tinsley family eventually saw the information in a web article posted by the CBS News affiliate in Raleigh. His relatives are now unsure if they can afford to bury him at home, and have set up a GoFundMe page.

“He was still a human being, part of our family,” February said. “He deserves some dignity, for us, and for the generation of nieces and nephews he never met.”

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