Hart Island lawsuit calls for more public access as advocacy continues on multiple fronts

Hart Island lawsuit calls for more public access as advocacy continues on multiple fronts
Community News Group / Photo by Patrick Rocchio

Hart Island, home to the city’s Potter’s Field burial sites that’s now off limits except for relatively infrequent visiting days, could soon be abuzz with visitors. Two recent developments seem to signal that momentum is there to open the island to visitors, either through a City Council action transferring its jurisdiction from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department, or through the courts, sources said.

These developments include the unveiling of a new Global Positioning System by the advocacy group Hart Island Project that can help visitors locate over 62,200 grave locations on their smartphones, and a federal lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union seeking more public access to the burial grounds based on the belief that the city’s policy limiting visitors violates constitutional rights of due process and religious exercise.

Melinda Hunt, of the Hart Island Project advocacy group working on behalf of the public to gain more access to the nearly 1 million gravesites on the island, said that a legislative remedy by the City Council or actions by the courts would have the desired effect.

“I’d rather the City Council update the Administrative Code and assign an appropriate city agency,” said Hunt, who said she was also open to legal remedies.

“I would like (the city) to review the whole burial process, because it would be much better to build structured vaults and have the Department of Health and the medical examiner deposit bodies without using inmate labor,” she added.

Currently, DOC inmates bury bodies on the island in mass graves. The transfer of jurisdiction legislation, so far, is still sitting in the council’s Fire and Criminal Justice committee.

The City Island Civic Association supports that legislation and all but one of the members of Bronx’s City Council delegation have agreed to support the transfer of Hart Island’s primary jurisdiction to Parks, said CICA corresponding secretary John Doyle. He has been lobbying for the borough’s council delegation to support a change in jurisdiction.

Making Hart Island a park could be a boon to City Island, since it is the closest residential community to the island, as has been previously reported in the Bronx Times.

The CICA supports the goals of gaining more access to the island for families of people who are buried there, said Doyle when asked about the NYCLU suit.

“We have been sympathetic to the humanitarian arguments allowing fundamental fairness in having people visiting their dead loved ones,” said Doyle, who added “opening Hart Island hurts no one, and provides a level of comfort and closure to a large group of people.”

Doyle said that he hopes the legislation transferring jurisdiction will be taken up by the council in the next year.

“From a community standpoint, making Hart Island parkland protects the community from the next bad idea that city bureaucrats come up with,” he said.

Members of the CICA board and the City Island Chamber of Commerce, as well as representatives from elected officials, toured the island in November. CICA second vice president Barbara Dolensek said Hart Island is in poor overall condition, and that she believes DOC should just be there to bury bodies.

The lead counsel on the NYCLU case, Christopher Dunn, stated that there was no reason for people to suffer in order to visit a cemetery.

“By preventing people from visiting the graves of their loved ones, the Department of Corrections is robbing people of the basic right to mourn and express their grief in the way they want,” said Dunn.

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 260–4597. E-mail him at procc‌hio@c‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.