A drone video from The Hart Island Project, an advocacy group rallying for the public to visit the mass cemetery on New York’s Hart Island, appears to show inmates burying bodies, en masse, on April 2, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The video shows wooden coffins inside mass graves on the island, which has been used as New York’s public cemetery for decades. Inmates and a police bus can be seen in the video, as former inmate Vincent Mingalone narrated the footage, describing his time on the burial detail. Mingalone can be heard in the video saying he was serving six months at Rikers Island for disobeying a court order before his release on February 18.
In the video, Mingalone said the prison only enlisted the help of inmates to bury bodies on Thursdays, and the Thursday burials ranged from 11 to 24 bodies per trip. Melinda Hunt, the Hart Island Project board president, told reporters 23 bodies were buried on Thursday, April 2.
Mingalone said he would work on the truck unloading coffins and his job was to write the name of the deceased on the outside of the coffin and map the plot. He would then pass the body to three inmates, who would pass it to three inmates “inside the pit”, the burial location. Each coffin would be stacked three high, and they would “continue the process until the truck was empty.”
Once the coffins were placed in the grave, they would pack the coffins with sand and soil, and “we would leave the pit until next week’s burial.”
“ I must say, we did take pride in what we did and we knew we were the only ones there for these people and you know, it’s just always intriguing that there’s so many stories, like we didn’t know this person, we didn’t see this person, they’re inside of a box. All we know is a name and date of death, but we always wondered if this person serve me coffee, was this person a janitor in a building, or what did this person do in life that they ultimately wound up here alone? We did the best we could with dignity and we handled the bodies carefully,” he said in the video.
According to reports, prisoners were offered $6 per hour to perform the burials and given personal protective equipment (PPE). The offer was made to those prisoners with convictions, and not to those awaiting trial, the report said. Mingalone can be heard in the video expressing concern about the lack of available workers, considering some New York prisons or jails are releasing prisoners amid the outbreak.
The Hart Island Project posted the footage and had shared similar footage in the past in an effort to encourage the public to visit the island, which in November became accessible parkland.
Hart told Storyful: “Hart Island is a beautiful location and the burials are conducted with respect. I do not think New Yorkers should fear Hart Island burials. The Parks Department will restore the landscape and it will be one of our most beloved parks.”
On Tuesday, April 7, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said 731 people died in the city since Monday, April 6. New York City has been declared an epicenter of the virus. Credit: The Hart Island Project via Storyful