An island of graves, yearning to be free: Let the public visit Hart Island

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By NYC Council Members Mark Levine & Elizabeth Crowley

Thanks to a recent agreement between the City Council and Mayor de Blasio, New York City is on a path to make history with the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. This momentous step would end the Department of Corrections’ nearly century-long hold on the Island, freeing it up for a variety of imaginative uses once more modern and humane jails are built elsewhere.

But, likely unbeknownst to many New Yorkers, Rikers is not the only island controlled by the Department of Correction. In the Long Island Sound off the coast of the Bronx lies Hart Island, a mile-long strip of land which is also under the department’s auspices.

Hart Island’s 101 acres feature picturesque views, eerie ruins, peaceful wooded areas — and mass graves containing the remains of more than 1 million New Yorkers.

The island is home to the city’s potter’s field, where for the past century and a half, those on the margins of society have been buried in large unmarked graves. It remains an active burial site today, with 1,200 bodies brought each year from amongst those who land in the city morgue unclaimed or unidentified.

In a twist right out of Dickens, burial work on the island is performed by inmates from Rikers — who earn 50 cents per hour while under the watchful eyes of armed guards. Hart Island is thus a secure facility under jurisdiction of the city, off-limits to the public for decades.

Thanks to activism by groups like the Hart Island Project and a lawsuit brought the New York Civil Liberties Union, those with loved ones buried on Hart can finally visit on a restricted basis one day per month. But city rules require armed escorts throughout these visits — hardly ideal conditions for dignified mourning.

Meanwhile, for the broader public, Hart Island remains inaccessible and largely unknown. Much as the isolation of Rikers Island allowed appalling conditions there to persist out of public consciousness, so too does the isolation of Hart Island ensure that the stories contained in New York City’s potter’s field are forgotten.

These stories, over a million in number, paint a stark picture of inequality in life and death.

Indigent Civil War veterans were among the first to be buried on Hart Island when the public cemetery opened there in 1869. It soon became the final destination for thousands of impoverished immigrants who had lived in the squalor of Manhattan tenements.

Over the decades, Hart Island saw waves of burials reflecting the spread of infectious disease, the rise in homelessness and the persistence of poverty.

Early victims of the AIDS epidemic were buried in an isolated part of the island in special 14-foot deep graves.

Today, those buried include babies who die at birth, the elderly who die in isolation, and those who end life on the street without identification or contact with kin.

It is a moving, enlightening, sobering and ultimately uplifting place to visit.

Thanks to a newly created index posted online, families are increasingly able to locate loved ones buried there. The growing ranks of mourners now seeking to visit the island should be able to do so in peace without escort by correction officers. The public should be able to freely visit as well, to understand the island’s history and appreciate its striking beauty.

We have sponsored legislation in the City Council to transfer jurisdiction from the Department of Corrections to an agency far better suited to a mission of public access, historic preservation and management of the island’s natural environment: the city’s Parks Department.

Under Parks, Hart could see a return of its natural landscaping, consistent with the growing movement towards green cemeteries. And the island’s many historic building — some over a century old and crumbling — could be stabilized and preserved.

Ongoing burials could be performed by city workers from the Chief Medical Examiner’s office, thus removing all the complications that arise from the presence of inmates on the island.

For a century and a half, Hart Island has hidden from New Yorkers the story of how we marginalize the poor, sick and forgotten — in life and in death. It's well past time for that story to be told.

Levine represents the 7th District in Upper Manhattan and chairs the Committee on Parks and Recreation. Crowley represents the 30th District in Queens and chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee.

Read the full Op-Ed here.

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