An Island of those poor unfortunate souls buried here in the unknown to others. If only I had the power to help this lost island.Michael A Roman, Riker’s Island inmate, April 3, 1992
Burials by prisoners
Hart Island was part of New York City even before Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island. The island was purchased in 1868 by the Department of Charities and Correction for the purpose of setting up a workhouse for older boys from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island.
Soon after the workhouse opened in 1869, burials of unclaimed and unidentified people began on Hart Island. Inmates from Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary traveled by ferry accompanied by bodies released for burial from the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital. Riker’s Island inmates performed the burials until COVID-19 pandemic ended the use of inmate labor on April 3, 2021.
Mass burials on Hart Island began in 1872. A numbered grid system was implemented to facilitate disinterments for later identification at the morgue. Today, most of the buried are identified. The workhouses are long closed. Yet, the system of burials remains unchanged and the cemetery only recently opened to the public.
In November 1991, Joel Sternfeld and Melinda Hunt began to photograph Hart Island as a hidden American landscape. They were granted access to the island, the burials and Riker’s Island inmates over a three year period. In 1994, toward the end of their work to produce a book of photographs, Vicki Pavia asked to accompany them to the gravesite of her baby, Denise.
Twenty years later, women seeking to visit the grave of a child had to request access through an attorney. Cameras were banned until 2021. To assist families in accessing information, locating a gravesite, and visitation, the Hart Island Project continues working with volunteer attorneys. Freedom of Information Law requests led to changes in city policies and access for families.
In 2015, New York City settled a class action lawsuit permitting relatives like Vicky Pavia to visit actual graves two weekends per month.
Hart Island opened to all visitors with the passage of legislation transferring jurisdiction to the Department of Parks and Recreation effective January 2023.