NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Action is finally being taken to stop one of New York’s most populated graveyards from falling into Long Island Sound.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Hart Island, a little known Potter’s Field in New York City, reports CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge.
It’s often referred to as the “island of the dead,” a name reinforced even more recently since bones have been washing up along the shoreline, but now there’s a push to restore it.
It takes months to schedule a visit to this public burial ground, the largest in the country, where more than a million New Yorkers have been laid to rest – many because they had no money or family, or were never identified.
The island is highly restricted and run by the city’s Department of Corrections, so armed officers didn’t show CBS2 the area where years of storms have unearthed graves.
In the last few months, Chopper 2 spotted red flags marking the spots where bones and teeth were found – including those of infants.
“My baby was buried right near the water,” said Dr. Laurie Grant of the Hart Island Project. “The babies are buried in small coffins so there’s about five on top of each other, and the whole area has sunk.”
Grant’s child died in 1993 and was buried on Hart Island in error. There are countless stories like hers.
Elaine Joseph’s daughter died days after she was born in February 1978. On that day a catastrophic snowstorm hit the city, and she says there was mass confusion at the hospital.
“I was told they had been understaffed in the morgue and was told the city had ‘quote, unquote’ taken care of it,” said Joseph.
“Taken care of” turned out to mean Joseph’s daughter had been mistakenly buried on the island. It took weeks to track down her grave, but at that time Hart Island did not allow visitors.
It wasn’t until three decades later in March 2014 when Joseph became the first person ever to visit the grave of a loved one buried on the island.
Each markers represents 150 people, so in a small section of the island, thousands have been buried. All of those graves are dug by Rikers Island prisoners.
“Sentenced inmates who are in the department serving sentences of a year or less for misdemeanor charges, they perform burials and disinterment as well as general grounds keeping around the island,” said Carleen McLaughlin, director of legislative affairs/special projects for the Department of Correction.
The inmates are the reason security has to be so tight and access so limited to the public, a policy that found its share of critics.
“We need to end jail for the dead,” said Melina Hunt, one such person who believes the way the island is run is a disgrace.
She has been monitoring it since the 1990s and doesn’t believe the Department of Corrections is equipped to operate a burial ground.
In April, 74 exposed bones were recovered by the medical examiners office. They were eventually re-interred after pressure from local advocates who say this issue is not new.
“I saw those bones in 1992 and we rephotographed them in April 2018,” said Hunt. “That’s an awfully long time so now the city needs to take action.”
City council members have introduced two bills to transfer jurisdiction of the island to the parks department.
They also want abandoned buildings that have sat empty for years renovated and put to use, along with proposing a public ferry service be set up.
Corrections is fighting back to maintain control, saying in a statement: “The New York City Department of Correction has managed burial and disinterment services at Hart Island for more than 100 years, and we consider this a solemn responsibility.”
Despite promises, so far advocates say nothing been done to make the island more accommodating to visitors or to fix the worsening erosion.
Back in 2015, after Superstorm Sandy, FEMA gave the city $13.2 million to strengthen the shoreline, but three years later the work hasn’t even started.
This spring, after CBS2 covered the story, the department of correction announced it is now fast-tracking the project. Repairs are set to start next year, which advocates hope is the first step to a revitalized island.
They hope one day people like Elaine Joseph can visit her daughter without being escorted by armed guards.
“So I can come visit her grave site as often as I choose to visit,” said Joseph. “Just like anyone else visits their family’s gravesite.”