A City Council oversight committee is looking into the status of the Potter's Field cemetery at Hart Island where 850,000 people are buried. The cemetery is run by the City's Department of Corrections with inmate labor. The Council is pushing for both better record keeping and greater access for the public looking for the bodies of deceased loved ones.
In 2010, inmates directed by City's Department of Corrections buried eleven hundred bodies on Hart Island that were unclaimed, unidentified, or whose families could not afford to bury them, including 670 adults and 476 infants. Melinda Hunt, with the non-profit Hart Island Project said people trying to find relatives have to deal with a legacy of bad record keeping and very limited access.
"In the twenty years that I have been working on the Hart Island Project, this is the first time that there has been a hearing with City Council members who are concerned about what's happening on Hart Island and I am very glad to see that happen," Hunt said in an interview before she testifed at the hearing.
Department of Corrections officials told the Council Committee they are in the early stages of computerizing the records and are making an effort to provide access to the island. There are no public restrooms or water fountains on the island and the dock used for the ferry that provides sole access to the island is in need of repair.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley said that in addition to more public access, she wanted to see the preservation of the structures on the Island. Some date as far back as the Civil War, when the island hosted a jail for Confederate POWs.
"If we were to look at the cemetery and the island as a multi-use entity, that more people will go there and it will be better taken care of and become much more of an asset to the people of New York," Crowley said in an interview after the hearing.
Staten Island Councilman James Oddo said it has been years since the Council reviewed operations at the site. He said he has heard complaints about lapses in record keeping.
"And I think it is long overdue and I have had two instances in the last two years, one positive, one really disheartening in trying to get the remains of a loved one and that's how I have come to this."
In one instance, Oddo was able to help a constituent locate the remains of her mother who had died and been buried in Hart Island in the late 1980s. The Staten Island Councilman said a press account of that success prompted someone in California to reach out for his help locating the body of a family member who was veteran of the Vietnam War and was buried on the island in the 1970s.
Oddo said that due to a fire, internment records for that period have been lost.