The Cold Truth About Life And Death On New York’s Hart And Rikers Island


Humans are creatures of community. There’s nothing like a Global Pandemic to open our eyes and really show us how much we need to be around each other. We’re social, but for the longest time we’ve been taught this idea of individualism that feeds us a specific brand of “me against the world.” And we buy it, package it, and ingest it every day. “You have to look out for yourself; You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps; etc.” It’s always “me, me, me.” Sometimes it’s even “we, we, we.” And we forget, we ignore, and we push out those who don’t fit in with “me” or “we”. So in the end, what happens to those who fall on the wayside of “we”? Those we call “others” and those who are forgotten because we push them to the margins of society? What happens to those without community and those without family? Where do they end up? Where do they go?


On April 9, 2020, the media caught aerial footage of NYC burying dead bodies of unclaimed and un-named COVID-19 Victims in their infamous Hart Island. Why is this important? Because Hart Island has a long history of being the final resting ground for the forgotten, ignored, and downtrodden. The Deputy Press Secretary for the NYC Mayor’s office, Avery Cohen, stated that “for decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest descendants who have not been claimed by family members.” And now, amidst a pandemic of the likes even our grandparents have not seen in their lifetimes, we are again reminded that death is imminent and inevitable for all as seen by the new number of mass graves we’ve excavated on Hart Island. 

This isn’t new for New York City, though. Hart Island has always been home to mass graves and those who society wanted to forget. In 1864, New York City sent its Black Union troops to Hart Island, because they were deemed “too dangerous” and had to be “kept out of sight of NYC’s racist white population.” That was the beginning of a long history of marginalized bodies being sent to Hart Island. 

In 1878 a New York Times article stated that being buried in Hart Island’s Potter field was for the “pauper dead…the children of the poor, of the vicious, [and] of the vile.” In the late 19th century the Island housed “a quarantine station for victims of Yellow Fever, an Industrial School for pauper children, a women’s psychiatric institution… a workhouse and a prison for the elderly.” In the early 1900s, it was home to a Tuberculosis Sanitarium and it became a final resting ground for those who died of Tuberculosis but had no family to claim them. In the 80s and 90s, it became a mass grave for people who died of AIDS/HIV, and those who (again) were unclaimed. Today, it’s become a mass grave once again, for those who have died of COVID-19 but had no community to claim them. Which isn’t news for NYC residents since Hart Island has always been the final resting ground for unclaimed soldiers, poor, homeless, stillborn babies, junkies, sex workers, and many more. 

As of April 23rd, more than 1 million dead bodies have been buried on Hart Island. During this year’s COVID-19 virus outbreak, all NYC dead bodies are sent for burial on Hart Island if they spend up to 15 days in a funeral home unclaimed. This means that people whose families and relatives have not been able to travel into the city to collect their bodies, end up in these mass graves. These are the bodies of people who not only have no family to claim them, but also the bodies of people whose families have no money to bury them. The Island is home to “coffins of children, women, and men stacked on top of eachother,” as Owen Clayton states in one article. 

Bodies which are buried by none other than New York City’s very own, Rikers Island Prisoners. And this is a fact that is even more appalling seeing as most Rikers Island inmates are majority poor, Black and Latino’s who are awaiting trial and cannot afford bail. This leads me to my next point about Rikers Island Correctional facilities having a long history of dehumanization and torture of marginalized people as well, a lot of which are held without charges. 

A notorious case born out of Rikers is Kalief Browder’s suicide in 2015. Kalief was detained without being charged in Rikers in 2010 after being arrested for robbery. Kalief, then a 16 year old black boy, was detained for 3 years in Rikers without charges and subject to solitary confinement for up to 1 of those three years. While in Rikers he tried to kill himself 5 times, one of which was in 2012 when he attempted to hang himself from a light fixture. After his release, Kalief suffered from mental health issues until he later killed himself at the age of 22. I ask you to see if you could even imagine what that young man had to have been put through in order for him to no longer want to live in this world, even after his release from Rikers. 

And Kalief is not the only prisoner to be put through torment at Rikers. In 2019, a transgender woman (Layleen Cubilette-Polanco) died due to complications with her epilepsy while under solitary confinement at Rikers. Layleen was sent to Rikers because she could not pay the $500 for her bail after being arrested for misdemeanor charges. In 2014 there was an investigation into multiple deaths of inmates at Rikers ranging from “a homeless ex-Marine, who essentially baked to death in a hot cell, to a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.” This is all so appalling and a direct result of a society that is all too comfortable with the dehumanization of the marginalized, which are often Black and Brown people. 

However, I would like to add that New York City has seen the error of their ways and the city’s leaders have been taking steps to rectify the abhorrent mistreatment of the inmates at Rickers. In 2019 New York City’s Mayor and several others voted to close Rikers Island’s 10 jails housing up to 15,000 prisoners by the year 2026, but a New York Times article explains that Rikers 10 jail complex will be replaced by 4 smaller jails. In his Decarceration plan, Mayor Bill DeBlasio explains that the four smaller jails will house inmates closer to their communities and courts, have safer housing units, access to natural light, and have space for ample programming. The 53-page plan explains that judges will be provided “modern tools that assess the likelihood a defendant will return to court, assisting decisions to release or detain while a criminal case is pending,” which in theory will keep populations low in the 4 smaller jails. The document also details a plan for bail reform that will assess the inefficiencies in the city’s bail payment processes, and a plan to address recidivism in NYC’s jail systems as well as very many other plans to address the growing population of inmates with mental health issues, and women’s high number of incarcerations, etc.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Decarceration plan for Rikers is exciting and long overdue. I can only hope other leaders across the United States could begin implementing prison reform laws such as this, however, after learning of it I am left with several more questions. How does the city of New York plan on rehabilitating all the current and past resident inmates who have been subject to physical, mental, and emotional trauma at the hands of Rikers officers and staff? What changes have been set in place today for the assurance of the current inmate’s safety and health? And further, how do we as a society plan on owning up to and facing those people within the margins of our society which we ignore and push into the arms of brutality and death? I believe that this new plan is an important first step toward prison reform and rehabilitation, but we as a society need to also take more definitive steps toward abolishing the dehumanization and marginalization of real everyday people and communities across the United States way before they end up in the prison systems to begin with.  


With regards to the mass graves on Hart Island due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I can only hope that the city is keeping detailed records of who is being buried and where for when family members start searching for their loved ones once this nightmare is over. As I said, this is an individualistic society and the normalization of the ostracized “other” is just a part of our world at this point but is this what we as people want to continue to accept? Or will we each make strides in our daily lives to invite the “others” around us back into the fold of humanity? Without our collective action to end social norms that further marginalize people like you and me, we will continue to see stories of tragedies that happen to those that we have forgotten.