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Bill would transfer control of Hart Island to parks department

City councilman Ydanis Rodriguez reintroduces legislation to take control of what is likely the country’s largest public cemetery from the Department of Corrections.

The decaying abandoned prison workhouse on Hart Island

The decaying abandoned prison workhouse on Hart Island in New York City on March 27, 2014. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / DON EMMERT

A New York City councilman reintroduced legislation Tuesday to switch control over Hart Island — said to be the largest public cemetery in the United States — from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) said he was bringing the proposal back as a way of ensuring that the island became more accessible to the public and those whose relatives were buried there. Since 1868, more than a million people have been buried in mass graves, officials said.

Rodriguez also wants the city to institute regular ferry service to the 101-acre slice of land in the Long Island Sound.

The legislation was first introduced in 2016 by former council member Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens) and co-sponsored by nearly two dozen other members, including Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), but got no traction with past council leadership or City Hall.

“We are here to take it to the finish line,” Rodriguez said at a news conference before he resubmitted the bill. “We hope the administration will be open to sitting down with us.”

DOC has had jurisdiction over the island for at least 100 years. Low risk inmates from Rikers Island jails are used for burial details a couple of times a week, in which unidentified and unclaimed bodies are buried in pine coffins stacked and buried in trenches.

“This is a Dickensian system of burials. It needs to end. We are in the 21st Century and we can do better,” said Melinda Hunt, who heads The Hart Island Project.

In recent weeks, Oyster Beach pediatrician Greg Gulbransen photographed human remains that had eroded onto the island’s shoreline. After Newsday made inquires about Gulbransen’s discovery, DOC officials dispatched special crews to clean up the remains and said they would expedite work to repair the shoreline damaged by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had tasked DOC with addressing the problems on Hart Island.

Elaine Joseph, 64, a nurse from Fresh Meadows, Queens, said her 5-day-old daughter died undergoing heart surgery in 1978 and was buried on Hart Island by mistake. Joseph said she had to wait for months to take a special DOC ferry service to visit the island, with an escort of guards.

“It is an awful feeling to have to be escorted to a baby’s grave by a man or woman with a gun,” said Joseph.

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