Since 1896, New York’s Hart Island has been home to all the bodies of “unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers,” according to the Hart Island Project.
The advocacy group, which hopes to transparently inform the public of how New York City handles burials on the island, estimates that more than a million New Yorkers currently rest there. The job of burying unclaimed bodies has long fallen to local inmates, whose jobs have gotten far harder in recent months.
Recently released aerial footage shows mass graves littering the island. The footage, verified and shared by Storyful, shows stacks of coffins placed in mass burial sites. Dubbed over the footage is former Rikers Island inmate Vincent Mingalone, a New York florist. He details his experience as one of the inmates in charge of performing those mass burials.
In a voiceover on the nearly 5-minute video, Mingalone explains how the job used to function. Typically, the inmates assigned to Hart Island had a variety of assigned tasks. Burying bodies only occurred one day a week, on Thursdays. Typically, the detail consisted of around six inmates. On average, Mingalone said they would perform between 11 and 24 burials.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, much of that has changed. By the time Mingalone's six-month sentence was nearing an end in mid-February, more men had been added to the detail. Beginning near the end of January, between 18 and 20 men in total were making their way to the island each day, he said.
"I must say, we did take pride in what we did," Mingalone said in the voice over. "We knew we were the only ones there for these people. All we know is a name and a date of death, but we always wondered 'Did this person serve me coffee?' or 'Was this person a janitor in a building?' What did this person do in life that they ultimately wound up here, alone?"
Mingalone noted, near the end of the video, that he has concerns the prison may not be able to find enough volunteers. This concern is particularly relevant as prisons around the country release portions of their non-violent, elderly populations. "Even when it was a full house, a lot didn't volunteer for that," Mingalone said. The job's "ghoulish" nature, along with its proportionally low pay, often discourages prisoners from signing up.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed to the Intercept that prisoners are burying people on the island, but denied any connection to the impact of COVID-19. He noted that bodies have been buried by prisoners on Hart Island for years.
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H/T CTV News