New York City is offering prisoners at its Rikers Island jail complex $6 an hour — inmates typically earn an hourly wage of 62 cents — to help dig mass graves on Hart Island to accommodate up to 51,000 bodies.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office confirmed the general arrangement, but said that it was not “COVID-specific.” A spokesperson for the mayor said that prisoners have been digging graves on Hart Island for years. But a memo sent to prisoners mentioned that they would be given “personal protective equipment.” That leaves little doubt the graves will be for COVID-19 victims, a source told The Intercept.
New York City remains the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. Currently, there are 38,000 people infected with more than 914 dead.
Rikers itself has become widely infected with the coronavirus. The jail houses about 4,600 people and has a COVID-19 infection rate of 3.6 percent, according to data compiled by the Legal Aid Society.
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Health conditions in the Rikers jail are at dangerous levels, according to Justine Olderman, executive director of Bronx Defenders, a public defender organization.
“You have a situation where all the protocols that are coming out of the Centers for Disease Control cannot be enacted,” Olderman told The Intercept. “There are broken sinks, there’s no hand sanitizer, people don’t have access to soap, and at a time we’re all being asked to do social distancing, you have an environment where people are sleeping 100 to a room.”
Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a Rikers Island inmate, could potentially be digging graves.
Hart Island was mentioned in a 2008 contingency plan as a place to bury pandemic victims. Located in the Bronx about seven miles from Rikers Island, Hart Island is home to New York City’s 131-acre public cemetery. It has been described as the largest tax-funded cemetery in the U.S. and the world, and one of the largest mass graves in the U.S. More than 1 million dead are buried on the island.
The 2008 pandemic contingency plan was drafted during the administration of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg by Charles S. Hirsch, the city’s chief medical examiner.
The plan is titled “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan For Managing In- and Out-of-Hospital Deaths.” The report outlines response strategies in case of widespread emergencies on the scale of the 1918 Spanish flu and the 1957 Asian flu.
Under the plan, New York City would use professionals including morticians, forensic photographers, and medical students to record and collect the bodies.
If the removal of bodies becomes overwhelming, it proposes accelerating the disposal using faster methods such as cremation.
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“And as a last resort, the city would ship the excess bodies off to Hart Island, located in the western Long Island Sound off the Bronx shoreline. Once there, prisoners from nearby Rikers Island…would be tasked with digging mass graves and burying the corpses,” Media Entertainment Arts WorldWide reported.
The use of prison labor during the COVID-19 pandemic has been controversial. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo claimed prisoners were making hand sanitizer, but it turned out they were only rebottling it.
“I’m concerned that we are asking the incarcerated to save the public from a health crisis, but won’t give them the dignity of a fair wage,” State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a first-term Democrat from Brooklyn, told the New York Times.