‘Jail for dead’ now open


The Citizen (KZN) - - World - New York

New York city coun­cil votes to end prison con­trol of Hart Is­land.

A once off-lim­its, erod­ing is­land in New York where more than a mil­lion peo­ple are buried in un­marked mass graves dug by pris­on­ers is about to be­come more ac­ces­si­ble.

For 150 years, un­claimed bod­ies, the poor, still-born chil­dren and Aids vic­tims have been laid to rest on the Hart Is­land, mak­ing it one of Amer­ica’s largest pub­lic ceme­ter­ies.

Of­ten re­ferred to as “is­land of the dead” or “jail for the dead,” the islet has for over a cen­tury been run by the pris­ons depart­ment, which heav­ily re­stricts ac­cess.

Rel­a­tives are only al­lowed to visit on two des­ig­nated days a month, while correction­al of­fi­cers es­cort media there just twice a year.

“I don’t want some­body to tell me when I can visit my baby’s gravesite. I want to go when I want,” said Elaine Joseph, 65.

Her daugh­ter Tomika was a few days old when she died in Jan­uary 1978, af­ter be­ing born pre­ma­turely. Joseph wasn’t able to visit her grave un­til 2014.

Soon, the re­tired nurse will be able to pay her re­spects reg­u­larly, thanks to plans to open up Hart Is­land, which mayor Bill de Bla­sio signed on Wed­nes­day.

It is a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment in a years-long campaign to make the site, which has signs read­ing “prison prop­erty keep out”, more dig­ni­fied for the dead and their fam­i­lies.

Hart Is­land be­came a pot­ter’s field in 1869, af­ter the city pur­chased it from a pri­vate land­holder to bury un­known and in­di­gent res­i­dents.

About 1 200 buri­als still take place ev­ery year. Adults are buried in pine coffins stacked three deep; chil­dren five deep in plots of 1 000.

In­mates from nearby Rik­ers Is­land, one of Amer­ica’s most no­to­ri­ous jails, are paid $1 (about R14) an hour to bury the dead.

Many HIV-pos­i­tive peo­ple were buried on a sep­a­rate site there dur­ing the ’80s Aids crisis af­ter los­ing touch with their fam­i­lies or be­cause pri­vate grave­yards re­fused to take them over in­cor­rect fears about con­ta­gion.

Sev­eral na­tion­al­i­ties are among the dead, in­clud­ing Chi­nese, Nige­rian and Nepali peo­ple, said Justin von Bu­j­doss, a prison chap­lain.

“Hart Is­land rep­re­sents a cross sec­tion of the di­ver­sity of New York City, which is why it re­ally ought to be con­sid­ered sa­cred ground,” he said.

Be­tween 40 and 50 ex­huma­tions hap­pen ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials, af­ter rel­a­tives trace a loved one and opt to re­bury them in a pri­vate ceme­tery.

The is­land has served as a prison camp for cap­tured Con­fed­er­ates in the US Civil War, a men­tal asy­lum, a sana­to­rium for tu­ber­cu­lo­sis suf­fer­ers, a youth de­ten­tion cen­tre and even a Cold War-era mis­sile base.

The is­land is in need of an up­grade. Sev­eral di­lap­i­dated build­ings lie aban­doned and ero­sion, wors­ened by Su­per­storm Sandy in 2012, has dam­aged its shore­line, un­earthing some bones.

Arche­ol­o­gists have been han­dling re­mains to en­sure bones do not get mixed up while this Septem­ber work be­gan on a $13.2 mil­lion (about R193 mil­lion) project to mit­i­gate the ero­sion.

Last month, New York’s city coun­cil voted to end prison con­trol of Hart Is­land by trans­fer­ring ju­ris­dic­tion to its parks depart­ment, in a move hailed by ac­tivists. It also pledged to start reg­u­lar ferry ser­vices.

Au­thor­i­ties first started per­mit­ting vis­its in 2007, al­though rel­a­tives were re­stricted to a gazebo away from the burial plots. Af­ter the city set­tled a law­suit in 2015, rel­a­tives have been al­lowed to visit gravesites, al­beit un­der con­trolled con­di­tions and on spec­i­fied dates.

Joseph has to ap­ply to the pris­ons depart­ment for prior ap­proval. Her vis­it­ing time is also lim­ited.

Once the trans­fer of ju­ris­dic­tion is com­plete, ex­pected in 2021, Joseph hopes to fi­nally put up a plaque bear­ing her daugh­ter’s name, date of birth, and a small tribute to her.

“I want it to be just like any other ceme­tery,” she said.

I want it to be just like any other ceme­tery

Pictures: AFP

NO EN­TRY. A sign on the ferry dock warns against tres­pass­ing on the Pot­ter’s field at Hart Is­land in New York. Elaine Joseph’s baby daugh­ter is one of about a mil­lion peo­ple buried in un­marked mass graves dug by pris­on­ers.

GRAVESITE. A me­mo­rial marker can be seen on the Pot­ter’s field at Hart Is­land.

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