June 01, 2020

Warren, Booker Call for Universal COVID-19 Testing of All Incarcerated Individuals and Staff at Federal Prisons

Of Roughly 2,700 Inmates Tested, Approximately 70% Have Tested Positive for COVID-19

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) urging the BOP to immediately conduct universal COVID-19 diagnostic testing of all incarcerated individuals and correctional staff-including those at privately-managed facilities-and to publicly release comprehensive data on the number of incarcerated individuals and staff who have been tested for COVID-19 and the results of these tests in its daily reports of COVID-19 cases in federal prisons.

"If we're committed to ending this deadly pandemic, then we need to get serious about testing, especially at federal prisons, where inmates and staff are particularly vulnerable to the virus," said Senator Warren in a statement alongside the letter. " With the federal prison population's average infection rate being more than 5 times higher than the national average, BOP must act now to save lives and protect the health and safety of incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and the general public."

Since the beginning of the outbreak, public health experts have warned that incarcerated individuals are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as they are confined in close quarters and are unable to take precautionary steps to protect themselves, including social distancing and increased personal hygiene. According to BOP's most recent public reporting, 1,693 individuals incarcerated in the federal system have been infected and 64 have died as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, 187 BOP staff have been infected.

The nearly 170,000 individuals incarcerated in the federal system and around 36,000 correctional staff are dependent on BOP to effectively manage the COVID-19 crisis and implement measures to protect them from infection. However, little information has emerged about the COVID-19 diagnostic testing being conducted by BOP, and earlier this month, BOP announced that "of the roughly 2,700 inmates tested, approximately 70% have tested positive for COVID-19." This extremely high positive test rate suggests that BOP is not testing sufficient numbers of incarcerated individuals and staff.

"Widespread and continued diagnostic testing is crucial to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic," the senators wrote in the letter. "Because many of the individuals carrying COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, widespread testing is critical to understanding the extent of the outbreak in the incarcerated population, and making informed decisions to limit further spreading of the virus."

Senators Warren and Booker called on BOP to immediately implement COVID-19 diagnostic testing of all incarcerated individuals in BOP custody and BOP correctional staff, and mandate that all incarcerated individuals and staff in privately-managed facilities be tested. The senators also urged BOP to publicly release information about its COVID-19 testing policies and the testing capabilities of each BOP facility, and to release the numbers of incarcerated individuals and staff who have been tested for COVID-19, along with comprehensive data on the results of those tests in its daily reporting of COVID-19 cases in federal prisons. 

Last month, Senator Warren, along with Senator Markey and Congresswoman Trahan, wrote to BOP urging it to immediately implement widespread COVID-19 testing of all incarcerated individuals and staff at Federal Medical Center Devens (FMC Devens) and release to home confinement vulnerable individuals who do not pose specific and substantial safety threats. Booker has introduced legislation that would incentivize states to provide COVID-19 testing and treatment for vulnerable people in state facilities, and legislation that would release to home confinement thousands of people behind bars in federal facilities that are vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

In March, Senators Warren and Booker, and a group of their Senate colleagues, wrote to BOP requesting information on the steps it was taking to prevent and manage the COVID-19 outbreak in federal prisons. Senator Warren, along with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), has also written to President Trump calling on him to adopt and release decarceral guidelines to reduce the population of people in federal custody in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.