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Prisoners are digging mass graves in New York City as pandemic deaths mount

People whose bodies go unclaimed after they die from COVID-19 are being buried in mass graves on Hart Island.
Credit: AP
Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, Thursday, April 9, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. On Thursday, New York City's medical examiner confirmed that the city has shortened the amount of time it will hold on to remains to 14 days from 30 days before they will be transferred for temporary internment at a City Cemetery. Earlier in the week, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said that officials have explored the possibility of temporary burials on Hart Island, a strip of land in Long Island Sound that has long served as the city's potter's field. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK — It’s the final resting place for more than a million people. Hart Island has been New York City’s dumping ground for unclaimed corpses since the 19th century, according to the New York Times. And the strip of land just off the coast of the Bronx could soon become even more crowded if the number of coronavirus deaths in the city continues to spike.

The Intercept reports prisoners from the infamous Rikers Island prison are getting paid $6 an hour to dig mass graves there. A spokesperson for NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed it but told the news organization the project was not “COVID-specific.” But that doesn’t mean the bodies of some people who die from COVID-19 in New York City won’t end up buried on top of one another.

In fact, those burials have already started.

That's because the city’s Chief Medical Examiner in 2008 released an action plan for dealing with a theoretical flu pandemic – basically a worst-case scenario plan – that identified Hart Island as a place where more than 20,000 people could be buried. The report also suggested the possibility of following the Department of Defense’s “temporary mass interment” method which involves lining up caskets head to toe in shallow graves to limit the amount of digging that has to be done.

Credit: AP
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As of Thursday, there were nearly 6,000 COVID-19 deaths in New York City alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The New York Times says deaths in the state account for more than 40 percent of all confirmed cases in the country. 

As for the prisoners who are digging the mass graves on Hart Island – The Intercept reports they’re being provided with personal protective equipment and their $6 an hour wage is many times higher than what prisoners usually earn for their labor.

Credit: AP
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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