More mourners will be allowed to visit the mass graves on Hart Island, the burial site for New York City's indigent dead, according to a new modification of a 2015 settlement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and the city. The Department of Correction, which has managed the island since the 1940s, has also agreed to photograph grave visits for families as part of a three-month pilot program.
Previously, monthly visits to Hart Island were capped at 50 people. That cap has been raised to 70.
"Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial, and this increase in gravesite visitation is one more step towards honoring the memory of people buried there," said NYCLU attorney Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case.
The 131-acre island at the west end of the Long Island Sound has been under the jurisdiction of the city since 1868, and operated solely by the DOC since 1946. It is the largest tax funded cemetery in the world, and the only one operated by a corrections department, according to the city.
More than 1,000 New Yorkers are buried on the island each year, by a skeleton crew of fewer than 10 inmates overseen by five officers and a captain. Many of the dead were homeless in life or unidentifiable at the time of death. Stillborn infants are buried on the island, as well as veterans, and victims of the AIDS epidemic.
Access to Hart Island has been hard won for the families of those buried there. The NYCLU reached a settlement with the city in July 2015, giving the bereaved the right to visit graves on a designated day each month with armed escorts. Until that summer, visits were contained to a gazebo near the island's ferry dock, out of view of the graves. Visitors are still subject to search, and guards have the right to confiscate graveside offerings that could be deemed a "security risk." According to the DOC's website, only small stuffed animals, photographs, prayer cards, small flags, blankets, and flowers without vases are permitted.
As part of the initial settlement, the city agreed to provide quarterly statistics on the number of gravesite visit requests processed, granted, and denied. Both parties met following the second quarter of 2016 to revaluate the visitation cap.
"We think it is a fair expansion for now," Dunn told Gothamist via email on Tuesday. "But we will continue to monitor visitation, and to push for even greater access if that becomes necessary."
A group of advocates and City Council members, including Manhattan Council Member Mark Levine, support legislation that would shift Hart Island jurisdiction to the Parks Department, ideally expanding public access.
"You should want to visit Hart Island," Levine said at a hearing last January. "It's a spectacular place with views of the city and a dozen historical buildings. Unfortunately you can't, because it's run by the DOC."
Both Parks and the DOC have dug in their heels on the matter of public access. A cemetery "is not a department that Parks has any experience managing," Parks Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh told the Council last month.
Carleen McLaughlin, the DOC's director of legislative affairs, testified last winter that the DOC's Hart Island stewardship advances Mayor de Blasio's 14-point plan for reducing violence on Rikers Island.
"[Inmates] reduce their idleness, and are out there for several hours a day, so it meets that goal perfectly," she said.
Neither the DOC, nor the City Hall Law Department immediately responded to a request for comment.
[Update 1:00 p.m.]: DOC issued the following statement:
The Department of Correction has administered the city cemetery on Hart Island for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility. In 2015, we began permitting monthly gravesite visits on Hart Island by family members of individuals interred on the island and their guests. Since then, we have sought to maximize access and facilitation of such visits, and this expansion furthers that goal in a manner consistent with visitor security and safety concerns.