A corner of the city that was once onerous to access will be slightly less so: The city has agreed to a small expansion of visiting rights for Hart Island, as Gothamist reports.
As one of the many smaller islands outside of the five boroughs, Hart Island has seen many iterations over the years, from its origins as a potter's field (or mass gravesite for destitute and unclaimed New Yorkers) to its time as a Civil War base to its occasional use as a jail for delinquent boys and a rehab center, as we've written previously.
These days, the island is once again used as a burial site for New Yorkers who has passed away but whose bodies have gone unclaimed. Following a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Corrections, which runs the island, has agreed to facilitate once-a-month visits for groups of up to 50 mourners at a time. Per Gothamist, the group sizes have been increased to 70 people, likely a necessity since more than 1,000 New Yorkers are buried on the island each year, and many have friends or relatives who want to visit. (Though bodies that end up on Hart Island are often unidentifiable or unclaimed at the time of death, relatives are sometimes able to track a loved one's whereabouts to determine if they were buried on the island, and some are even exhumed and moved to a location of the family's choosing.)
"Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial, and this increase in gravesite visitation is one more step towards honoring the memory of people buried there," an NYCLU attorney told Gothamist.
For now, the NYCLU is happy with the decision (though say they might push for further visitation in the future). Other advocate groups are pushing for the island to be taken over by the Parks Department, with even more public access. (Currently it's overseen by the Department of Corrections, with Rikers inmates hired for 50 cents an hour to bury the dead.)
The DoC, however, has said they have no intention of giving up the "solemn responsibility" of maintaining the island, and intend to keep working with the NYCLU to expand access as necessary.
If you're interested in visiting the island, the Department of Corrections website has FAQs and a visit request form available on their website.
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