Federal prisons chief defends agency coronavirus response as infections, deaths mount

Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal defended the agency's response to the increasingly deadly COVID-19 outbreak, saying recent inmate testing revealing infection rates as high as 70% are "in no way representative" of conditions across the system.

Carvajal, in a weekly address to staffers, suggested that the high rate of infection was due to expanded testing that included inmates who displayed no apparent symptoms of the virus, adding that less than half of the bureau's facilities have been hit.

Of the 2,700 inmates tested by last week, Carvajal said the "vast majority" were asymptomatic" with about 70 percent testing positive.

"This number, however, is no way representative of a positive rate across the agency," the director said. So far, the director said that 51 of the 122 federal prison facilities have coronavirus cases.

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"Of those, only 15 have an outbreak with more than 20 active, lab-confirmed, positive inmate cases and only five institutions have more than 20 active, positive staff cases," Carvajal said.

Yet the number of infections and deaths have continued to mount and taken a toll on an agency that has long struggled with persistent staffing shortages and a harsh spotlight cast by last year's suicide death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

As of Thursday, the virus had claimed at least 42 inmates, while 2,100 prisoners and more than 360 staffers have been infected.

Carvajal said that nearly 300 staffers have been tapped from other assignments in an attempt to fill personnel gaps.

"This year is unlike any year we have experienced within the bureau," Carvajal said.

The outbreaks within the nation's largest prison system have drawn the scrutiny of Attorney General William Barr, who has dispatched teams to examine conditions at the hardest hit facilities, including prisons in Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina and California.

The DOJ inspector general, Michael Horowitz, also is conducting a separate inquiry into conditions at the agency.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Federal prisons director defends agency response