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Nationally, 70% of federal inmates tested for COVID are positive

The Federal Correctional Institute at Ray Brook is seen in April 2016. The buildings were originally built to house athletes for the 1980 Winter Olympics in nearby Lake Placid. Converting it to a prison afterward was part of the original plan. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

RAY BROOK — Figures from federal prisons show that of the 2,700 inmates who have been tested for COVID-19 nationwide, 2,000 — 70% — have tested positive.

Numbers at the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook have remained the same for around a week now: five inmates and six staff, after peaking at six inmates and nine staff.

While some have speculated that infection numbers are larger than what is being reported, due to the limited number of tests, the BOP says these high percentages are the result of testing focused on those who need it.

“This does not reflect the positive rate across the BOP system,” BOP spokeswoman Sue Allison wrote in an email. “Only 45 of BOP institutions (less than half) are [a]ffected by COVID-19, and a small fraction of these are experiencing outbreaks. It is at those specific facilities where increased testing has been implemented to assist in containing the infection rate.”

Nationwide, 1,692 federal inmates and 349 BOP staff have tested positive. The BOP houses 146,000 prisoners in 122 facilities.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from Schuylerville who represents northern New York, said testing needs to be increased, as prisons have been “hotbeds” for transmissions of the coronavirus.

“The Bureau of Prisons needs to ramp up their testing; that’s an unacceptable number,” Stefanik said.

She said any corrections officer or inmate who qualifies for testing is able to access it at local levels, “but we need to do more.”

Allison said testing at BOP facilities will increase.

“As increased testing opportunities become available, the BOP will increase testing to include asymptomatic inmates,” Allison wrote. “As in many other civilian areas experiencing outbreaks, increased testing has resulted in higher positive rates.”

Stefanik said politicians have had trouble communicating with the prisons.

“Even we have had challenges breaking through the bureaucracy,” Stefanik said two weeks ago. “Really, it took a conversation I had with the attorney general’s office with the director of the BOP … to break down those communication black holes between the counties and Ray Brook.”

James Weldon, the president of AFGE CPL33, Local 3882 — the union representing corrections officers at FCI Ray Brook — has said the initial changes made at federal prisons were “a day late and a dollar short.”

After contracting COVID-19, Andrew Hastings, a corrections officer at FCI Ray Brook, was welcomed back to his Dickinson Center home last week. He spent 21 days, many of them on a ventilator, at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh.

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