Within a week of the first case of COVID-19 spreading to the NYC jail system, positive cases surged to more than 100 people. Pressure to release inmates from city jails rose—especially those with health conditions, older than 50, or held on technical violations.

The infection rate in city jails was found to be nearly eight times higher than New York City’s rate, according to data the Legal Aid Society has been tracking. 180 inmates, 141 Department of Correction employees, and 31 health staffers have tested positive, as of Tuesday.

As the virus spreads, family members of those still incarcerated fear for loved ones and are urging for their release to fight charges from the outside.

“I worry about him,” Margie, a 58-year-old Downtown Brooklyn resident, said of her husband, Francisco. “He’s had an asthma attack. He’s had an anxiety attack.”

At the Vernon C. Bain Center, a facility located on a boat near Rikers, 50-year-old Francisco told his lawyer he has seen disinfectant wipes inside the facility, but guards have declined to provide them for use on high-touch areas like the phones.

“I just worry about him because of his health, and they’re not doing much of anything for them in there,” said Margie, who added that they have two grandchildren, 19 and 23. “My husband is the sweetest man in the world. He would do anything for me and his family. … I'm not trying to make excuses for him, but he’d give me the shirt off his back and that’s the honest to God truth.”

His lawyer, Shirin Zarabi of the Brooklyn Defender Services, added drug abuse treatment programs may help his chances of release, but due to the pandemic, such programs aren’t taking clients from inside jails.

Francisco has been jailed since October after he was charged with burglary. The allegation, his lawyer says, is that he stole a jacket from a hallway area. The charge, which is not bail eligible under the new bail reform laws (which Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to alter) still resulted in his incarceration because it was a violation of his parole.

“It’s so easy for people to just assume that because you’re arrested, you must have done this—because you are on parole, you must be a bad person,” Zarabi said. “We’re putting people at risk of literally dying over a presumption. Nothing has been proven.”

Another inmate’s mother said, “I’m scared for my son.” Ms. Atkins, who declined to use her first name, added, “They’re just really not [doing much] sanitizing at this time.”

When her son Taiwan called from a Rikers Island facility on Tuesday, he said he used his T-shirt to hold the phone and has only seen such common spaces cleaned on Sundays. His mother pleaded with him during the brief call to find a way to wipe down the phone next time he calls and to take off his shirt.

“They need to do something quick or a lot of people will get sick,” Taiwan, 25, said. “Nobody is safe here because it’s already in the building.”

He’s been held on Rikers for allegedly selling a controlled substance after he faced previous robbery charges from years past, records show. But his mother, who said he takes medication for mental health issues and also has asthma, fears for his life.

“The coronavirus attacks your lungs,” she said. “It’s crazy over there right now. They don’t really treat them like how they would treat us out here.”

Taiwan doesn’t have sanitizer or disinfectant wipes and says the people serving food aren’t washing their hands. Social workers have told inmates to practice social distancing, and he was provided a mask this week, he said in a phone interview. But in a dorm of about 30 people, social distancing is difficult.

The Department of Correction disputed cleaning concerns, saying housing units, dayrooms and common spaces are cleaned daily and showers cleaned three times a day. The department says it provides masks to those working or living in areas under quarantine, those with flu-like symptoms, or in areas the department decides masks should be used. The previously closed Eric M. Taylor Center has also been reopened for quarantining inmates to curb the spread.

But reports from inmates and their families of concerning conditions are widespread. In a letter to the correction department, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams demanded more accountability after complaints about inadequate social distancing and sanitizing. A report from The Intercept that found incarcerated individuals are digging graves for $6 an hour and personal protective equipment on Hart Island. At the Manhattan Detention Complex, detainees were allegedly forced to clean urine and feces off the walls of the jail without any protections.

“The Department of Correction is doing everything we can to safely and humanely house people in our custody amid the broader COVID-19 crisis,” deputy commissioner of public information for DOC, Peter Thorne, said in a statement.

About 900 people have so far released from city jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday. The population of the jail system has dipped below 5,000 for the first time since 1949.

Cuomo has announced 1,100 low-level parole violators in local jails, including 400 in NYC jails, would be released.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it was not clear how many of those parole violators have been released; the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision referred us to the Department of Correction, which deferred to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. MOCJ said DOCCS was evaluating 140 people, of which 108 people had been released, but deferred to the state for additional questions.

[UPDATE, 6:45 p.m.: After publication of this article, a DOCCS spokesperson said 140 people from Rikers and 430 people from other local jails in the state had been released—totaling 570 lifted parole warrants. The department continues to review cases.]

The city’s five district attorneys and the special narcotics prosecutor argued in a letter to the mayor this week that the efforts to release people go too far.

“At this point, the seemingly haphazard process by which at-risk inmates are identified, and the reports that those released may include violent offenders, are creating a public perception that our city’s jails may be incapable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates,” the district attorneys wrote to de Blasio. “We believe this perception is wrong, especially given the recent reduction in the city jail population, and the increased housing options in city jail facilities that should be available as a result.

In response to the letter, de Blasio spokesperson Avery Cohen said, “The only way to achieve social distancing in our facilities and clinically monitor those most at risk for COVID-19 related illness is to release as many people as possible.”

“That's why we have chosen to pursue the release of medically vulnerable individuals and those with lower level offenses,” Cohen said. “At the same time, we are doing everything we can to safely and humanely house those in our custody including opening up new housing units to ensure social distancing and moving everyone who is medically vulnerable into dedicated housing units where they can be separated and receive adequate clinical attention.”

On Monday, Rikers’s chief doctor Ross MacDonald warned in a series of tweets that “infections in our jails are growing quickly” despite best efforts, and asked “in this time of crisis the focus remain on releasing as many vulnerable people as possible.”

Viruses spread like “wildfire” in such facilities, Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer of Rikers Island, warned during a Tuesday press call where advocates stressed the need for juvenile detainees to be released from facilities across the country.

“Inevitably, in a place where the virus has spread in the community, it’s coming into the correctional facilities,” added the co-director of Columbia University Justice Lab Vincent Schiraldi. “If you were trying to design something that would guarantee that people would get sick, correctional facilities are the place."

Of state prisons, criminal justice advocates are demanding Cuomo use his clemency powers to release older prisoners. According to the Release Aging People in Prison [RAPP] campaign, there are more than 10,200 adults older than locked up in state facilities. The state Department of Corrections said 23 detainees (including those in custody of the department and those under state parole supervision) and 123 DOCCS employees have COVID-19.

In Manhattan and Brooklyn federal prisons, four inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Wanda Salaman, whose nephew is in the federal Manhattan facility, Metropolitan Correctional Center, wants her 28-year-old nephew to be able to return home to his family, including his two children, or at least to a halfway home he was living in before.

“I know he made his mistakes in life, but I don’t think he should have a death sentence,” Salaman said. “How much social distancing [is] in a jail cell or a correctional facility?

After a Louisiana prisoner died of COVID-19 this week, Representatives Jerry Nadler of Manhattan and Karen Bass of California urged the federal government to release individuals into home confinement, “given that thousands of lives are at stake.”