An abandoned building on Hart Island in the Bronx. As of July 19, the city will run monthly visits for relatives and their guests. The Correction Department settled a lawsuit filed by the N.Y.C.L.U on behalf of relatives for greater access to the island. A hearing on a pending bill in the City Council which would transfer jurisdiction of the island to the city’s parks department will be held in the fall. (Photo: Don Emmert/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images via The New York Times)
In a major policy shift in the way New York runs its potter’s field for the burial of unclaimed bodies, the city has settled a lawsuit and will allow relatives to visit grave sites on Hart Island, off City Island in the Bronx, according to the New York Times.
The city’s Department of Correction, which runs burial operations on Hart Island, has settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of relatives of people buried there.
Both sides announced the settlement on Wednesday, calling it historic.
The correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, said the deal would help the department “enable access to the cemetery on Hart Island in a compassionate and safe manner.”
“We look forward to implementing this historic settlement,” Mr. Ponte continued, “and pledge to work closely with the N.Y.C.L.U. in order to make the compassionate access it envisions a reality.”
Under the settlement, the city will run monthly visits for relatives and their guests, said Christopher Dunn, a lawyer with the civil liberties organization who was the lead counsel in the case.
Prison inmates burying infants in caskets in 1991. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
The Correction Department takes inmates from Rikers Island to the island by bus and ferry to bury the deceased, including newborn children, in mass graves. In recent years, the department has conducted regular monthly visits, one weekday a month for relatives to gather at a memorial area on the island at a distance from the burial areas. But they were barred by officials from visiting the grave sites, which are unmarked, though the names and location of the dead are recorded in a city database.
Those weekday trips will continue, but the settlement also adds monthly weekend visits for relatives, each of whom may bring along up to four people who do not need to be relatives.
The city will offer two round-trip ferry rides — with space for a total of 50 passengers — starting on July 19, to transport visitors to the island, and then escort them to grave sites.
The 101-acre island has unceremoniously received the city’s homeless, poor, stillborn and other unclaimed bodies, delivered by truck and ferry from borough morgues. The city buries up to 1,500 bodies a year, stacked in pine boxes in long trenches.
Correction Department officials have long kept tight restrictions on burial information and have emphasized the need to keep the island restricted because of dangerous conditions, security concerns regarding the inmate laborers and the absence of amenities and utilities.
The settlement goes into detail in listing possible relatives who are allowed to visit, including parents, stepsiblings, second cousins, legal guardians and domestic partners. It specifies what visitors shall be permitted to leave as mementos at the grave sites, including flowers (no vases), small stuffed animals, small flags and blankets.
Mr. Dunn said that three people, from two families, were the lead plaintiffs in the suit, and that none wished to comment.
He said he believed the settlement would eventually lead to the burial areas being opened to the public.
“People will start visiting grave sites this month and more people will want to go, and more people will understand that the Department of Corrections running a cemetery is a bad idea,” he said.
Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York
In fact, a bill pending in the City Council would transfer jurisdiction over the island to the city’s parks department. The lead sponsor, Councilwoman Elizabeth S. Crowley, a Democrat from Queens, said a hearing on the bill would be held in the fall.
Saying Hart Island could be “a place schoolkids can take school trips to,” Ms. Crowley said she envisioned the island’s becoming an attraction in much the same way Governors Island has turned into a popular destination.
“The Department of Correction doesn’t want it,” she said. “In unofficial conversations, they’ve said they’d be happy to give it to another city agency.”
Advocates for opening up Hart Island argue that personnel hired and trained to oversee the city’s jail system are ill equipped to run a cemetery and interact with bereaved loved ones. They also argue that the rules stigmatize the visiting process, with relatives of the dead being treated as prison visitors rather than mourners by being forced to follow many of the same rules that apply at Rikers, including a ban on cameras and phones.
The settlement suggests that Correction Department officials may have more discretion, stating that officials are permitted to search visitors and “may require visitors to surrender electronic devices.” The settlement also stipulates that the officials “maintain a respectful distance while visitors are present at a grave site consistent with legitimate security concerns.”
Melinda Hunt, an advocate for easing the restrictions on Hart Island, called some aspects of the settlement disappointing, such as the city’s right to require relatives to present proof of their relationship to the deceased. The larger problem, she said, is that the burial system remains in control of jail officials and guards.
“The city has to review its 19th-century burial process.”
Still, she said, the settlement was “another step to opening Hart Island.”
“We’re not at the finish line,” she added, “but we’re farther along.”
New York Times - July 8, 2015 - By Corey Kilgannon
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