Watch CBS News

Hart Island Transferred To Parks Department As Part Of Plan To Improve Access

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - CBS2 has been covering the heartbreaking stories from Hart Island: Eroding property, exposed bones, and difficulty visiting loved ones at that burial ground.

All that changed Wednesday morning, when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill transferring control of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Watch: Mayor Bill de Blasio Signs Bill Transferring Control Of Hart Island

For many who have family and friends buried there, that's a win. They hope it will be more accessible to visit loved ones.

Hart Island is located off the coast of the Bronx. It's the largest public burial ground in the country.

More than one million people buried there had no money, no family or were never identified. Some were simply buried in error.

For more than a century, the island has been maintained by the city's Department of Correction and its prisoners, requiring high security. Visiting loved ones has been very difficult and it can take months to schedule a visit. Armed guards are required to escort visitors on the island, since inmates from Rikers Island work there, digging graves and burying bodies.

City officials say the Department of Correction has failed to look after the property, which has been eroding for years.

Last summer, our reporting revealed exposed bones from shoreline graves washed up on nearby Bronx beaches.

New legislation puts Hart Island in the hands of the Parks Department, making it more of a resting place than a prison.

Wednesday, a mother whose daughter was buried there in 1978 but got lost in the system spoke out.

"I never though this day would come ever," said Elaine Joseph. "I want to tell my daughter and all her million friends there with her they now have dignity. Their families can now tell others their children and family members are buried in a beautiful park, not in the direction of the penal system. They are now free."

"Many New Yorkers can't afford a private burial, funeral director, even to have a cremation. Future generations are also going to want their loved ones buried somewhere in the five boroughs, and they will cherish the park land of Hart Island."

"I want to thank everyone at the Department of Correction. For a long time they dealt with a very challenging situation, but they did it solemnly, and they did it with respect. But that chapter of the Department of Correction running Hart Island will close today with the signing of these pieces of legislation, and we will start a transformation."

"We hope that under the Park's responsibility and with the work the DOT will do also to put together a transportation plan, everyone, New Yorkers and visitors should be able to connect with the history, the story of black soldiers buried in that area, in that location, with the poorest New Yorkers, immigrants," said council member Ydanis Rodriguez.

Bills passed today also call for the Department of Transportation to develop a plan to make getting to and from the island more accessible.

Other legislation approved requires a hearing on public burials which would allow the public to have a say on rules and regulations. Lastly, it establishes an office to support people in need of burial assistance.

The city calls it a new path forward for Hart Island.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.