More visitors will be allowed onto Hart Island’s potters field under a modified settlement between the city and the NYCLU.
The city initially reached an agreement in 2015 to let 50 families with loved ones buried on Hart Island visit the potters’ field each month. The site, which is located in The Bronx just past City Island, is a burial ground for people who cannot afford individual services or whose bodies are unclaimed.
But the NYCLU announced on Tuesday that it had modified the settlement, increasing the maximum number of monthly visitors to 70 people per month.
“People were waiting too long to get on,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn, “so we pushed the city to increase the amount of visitors, and they now have agreed to do so.”
The Department of Correction, which manages the island, has also agreed to a three-month pilot program in which they will have a photographer at the island to take photos of the cemetery for visitors upon request. Photos and photographic equipment are currently banned on the island because it’s a DOC-run facility.
“There is a prohibition on electronic devices on the island because it’s treated as a DOC facility,” Dunn said, “but they will have someone there to take photographs at the request of visitors.”
Melinda Hunt, founding director of The Hart Island Project, an organization that aims to educate people about the cemetery, said the moves were a step in the right direction, but she was still upset about the decision to put DOC employees in charge of photography.
“It’s a very personal thing, and to have a correction officer taking photos of your baby’s gravesite is ridiculous, but that’s where we are,” she said. “It’s moving along.”
The settlement furthers the DOC’s goal of allowing more people to visit the island, but staffers must remain with all visitors for security reasons, as the island contains hazards such as wildlife, ruins and uneven ground, according to the agency.
New York City purchased Hart Island in 1868, and the first burial records date back to May of 1881, according to the city.
The DOC estimates that as many as 1 million people may have been buried on the island.
Families of people buried on the island struggled for years to be able to visit their relatives and leave mementos such as flowers and prayer cards at the gravesites before the July 2015 agreement between the city and the NYCLU. The settlement also resulted in the city agreeing to provide ferry service to the island.
Dunn was pleased that more people would be able to visit the island under the modified settlement but remained disappointed that it had taken legal action to get this done.
“It’s absurd that we have to have a lawsuit to deal with this issue because the city should just be allowing people to visit freely,” he said, “but we’re not there yet.”
Hunt maintained that the bigger issue was not how DOC managed the island but the fact that DOC was put in charge of it in the first place.
“Making adjustments to how the DOC does it, that isn’t the issue,” she said. “The issue is that we’re using the penal system to keep people from feely visiting their public cemetery.”