Speaking before the City Council on Wednesday, New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Christopher Dunn described what it's like to visit Hart Island, where more than 1 million New Yorkers are buried—many of them homeless in life or unidentifiable in death, alongside stillborn infants, veterans, or AIDs victims.

"You get to a dock that looks like you're arriving at a prison," Dunn said. "There's razor wire and armed guards. Guests are subject to search, and accompanied by an armed, uniformed DOC officer to each burial site."

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 Department of Correction since 1946. 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. The Hart Island Project keeps a digital archive of the dead, allowing family members to upload pictures and stories.

Legislation before the city Council would shift the maintenance and oversight of Hart Island—the largest tax funded cemetery in the world, and the only one operated by a corrections department, according to the city—to the Parks Department. Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley has argued that Parks would be better equipped to reduce the size of mass graves—pine wood coffins are currently packed sardine-like, 150 per trough—as well as prevent land erosion on the island and mark the graves with plantings.

From the NYCLU's perspective, the revocation of DOC management would also allow family members to grieve without the close oversight of armed guards. The organization reached a settlement with the city last July, giving the bereaved the right to visit graves on Hart Island on a designated day each month with armed escorts. Until last summer, visits were contained to a gazebo near the island's ferry dock, out of view of the graves. Still, visitors are 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.

Dunn was not sparing in his assessment of the DOC setup. "It's ghoulish to think of the prospect of inmates being trucked over to Hart Island to bury infants who have been abandoned," he said. "Because we have prisoners on Hart Island, we have to run it like it's a prison facility. Everything about that is wrong and Medieval."

The DOC countered that guards work to clear footpaths on the overgrown island, and steer visitors clear of unstable building structures.

Upper West Side Councilmember Mark Levine, who's long pushed for public access on nearby North Brother Island, would like to see Hart Island not only more hospitable to families of those buried there, but widely accessible to the public. "If there's one takeaway, it's that you should want to visit Hart Island," he said. "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."

Open burial pit with goose nest (Richard Nickel Jr. via)

But the DOC and the Medical Examiner dug in their heels on Wednesday, arguing that it is in the interest of the city not to interrupt services on Hart Island. The Parks Department agreed, testifying that it lacks the funds or skill set to take over. "NYC Parks believes that this falls outside the department's expertise," said a spokesman. "None of our parks include active burials." He estimated that any significant overhaul of the island for public access would cost tens of millions of dollars, citing crumbling buildings, low flood planes, and inadequate ferry service.

Councilmember Crowley was surprised at the legislation's reception, asking, "Does DOC really want to continue managing Hart Island?"

"We certainly can and are happy to continue," said Carleen McLaughlin, the DOC's director of legislative affairs.

McLaughlin went on to argue that the DOC's Hart Island stewardship advances Mayor de Blasio's 14-point plan for reducing violence on Rikers Island. "The work detail on Hart Island gets hours of programing so they can earn some money," she said. "They reduce their idleness, and are out there for several hours a day, so it meets that goal perfectly."

The defense was lost on Rogers, who testified on behalf of Picture the Homeless. "I have relatives buried on Hart Island, and I think that should be publicized," he said. "It is time for us to close what has been a prison to the dead and turn it into a park and a memorial."

The City Council has yet to schedule a vote on Hart Island's management. However, a spokesman for Levine's office said that the Council is nearing majority support of the legislation.