ABC News Corona Virus Government. Response

70% of inmates tested have COVID-19: Bureau of Prisons

BOP says it is not indicative of the number across the country.

The Bureau of Prisons on Friday said that 70% of the inmates the Bureau has tested have come back positive for COVID-19.

But the Bureau says that it doesn’t reflect the positive rate across the entire BOP system which houses 146,000 prisoners in 122 facilities.

The BOP says they've tested "roughly 2,700 inmates."

The Bureau said it is increasing testing throughout the system for both inmates and staff, but did not provide where they are testing.

BOP sources told ABC News that at the facilities where they are testing, they expect the numbers to balloon because of the Bureau’s previous policy, which asserted that once an inmate showed symptoms for COVID-19 they were quarantined and not tested.

"As increased testing opportunities become available, the BOP will increase testing to include asymptomatic inmates. As in many other civilian areas experiencing outbreaks, increased testing has resulted in higher positive rates," a Bureau spokeswoman said in a statement.

The Bureau has been under scrutiny about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that a Pennsylvania Republican introduced a bill to make the director of the BOP Senate-confirmed.

"After years of out-of-control spending and actions that run counter to institutional safety, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is abundantly clear that increased oversight of the BOP is long overdue. While the wardens and staff at BOP facilities have been nothing short of heroic in their service, the same cannot be said for BOP leaders in Washington," Congressman Fred Keller, R-PA said.

The House version of the bill would require the director replaced within three months of the law being enacted. There is also a Senate version which has garnered bipartisan support. According to Congressman Keller, 33 inmates have died due to COVID-19 and 1,692 inmates and 349 BOP staff have confirmed positive test results for the virus.

The Bureau of Prisons told ABC News that it does not issue opinions on pending litigation.

Advocates calling for the release of inmates amid the COVID-19 pandemic expressed outrage, after a pregnant inmate gave birth on a ventilator and then subsequently died weeks later.

That inmate, Andrea Circle Bear was the first female inmate to die of COVID-19 in the federal prison system.

Inmates, staff and attorneys have expressed confusion and frustration at the BOP for the way it's handled the inmate release after conflicting guidance.

"[Bureau of Prisons] is at this time prioritizing for consideration those inmates who either (1) have served 50% or more of their sentences, or (2) have 18 months or less remaining in their sentences and have served 25% or more of their sentences," a court filing in the Southern District of New York said, clarifying the guidance.

"As BOP processes the inmates eligible for home confinement under these criteria and learns more about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on BOP facilities, it is assessing whether and how to otherwise prioritize consideration.

One inmate’s family at FCI Forest City told ABC News that there was no access to hand soap at the facility. The inmate’s family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions by BOP said that this inmate was initially supposed to be released, but then BOP abruptly reversed course because of the updated guidelines.

The Bureau of Prisons told ABC News that soap is available throughout the facility as well as for purchase in the commissary, and for folks who cannot afford it, available at no cost.

"Everybody is continually making their own interpretations of the rules," the inmate's family member told ABC News.

This inmate’s family member said talking to BOP is like "talking to a brick wall."

"They're not being compassionate with their people and they are not following CDC guidelines," the inmate’s family member continued.

The family member, if given the opportunity, would tell Attorney General William Barr that the BOP is "going around him" by not following the guidelines expressed in his memos.

“I think they're just blaming each other. And nothing is really getting done. And the prisoners are in the middle.”

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map