Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

New York Adding Names to Tombstones of Dead Prisoners

“We recognize them as people, not just a number,” said Rev. Alfred Twyman. The chaplain with New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) was talking about corpses of people who died in a state prison, in a report published in Gothamist on May 15, 2023.

For decades, bodies not claimed by family members for burial elsewhere were interred in cemeteries on prison grounds, the graves marked with a tombstone containing only the prisoner’s ID number. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, DOCCS quietly changed course, adding the prisoner’s name to the grave marker. See: Incarcerated Individual Deaths—Administrative Responsibility, DOCCS Directive No. 4013 (Nov. 26, 2013, updated Apr. 16, 2020).

At Green Haven Correctional Facility, which has the oldest average prisoner age in the state, there are typically two deaths annually. Superintendent Mark Miller said the family of a 65-year-old prisoner who died in 2021—after 40 years of incarceration—could not afford a burial. So, the prison buried his body in its cemetery, after a graveside service for the family.

Twyman officiated at that burial, too, saying the dead man and others like him “should be afforded what anyone else would be afforded in passing.”

“Any mistakes they made, they were judged,” he noted. “That’s all been done. But now here they can lay to rest and lay to rest peacefully.”

“We take a lot of pride in the burials here,” Miller added, describing the dead prisoner’s casket that staff prepared, draped in black cloth, on which the family was “allowed” to lay flowers. If that sounds condescending, consider what Matthew Hahn said after a visit to Green Haven’s cemetery.

“It struck me that there’s a way that we memorialize people,” recalled the formerly incarcerated Californian, who said the numbered tombstones reminded him of unmarked graves in cemeteries of enslaved African-Americans. “[I]f the social context in which the person died was such that the powers that be didn’t want them remembered, they didn’t get the ability to be remembered.” A staffer who kicked him out told Hahn that names were being added to existing tombstones, too, pointing out a plaque with new names tacked over ancient ID numbers.

“Even if for the years that they spent incarcerated there the people that were overseeing them didn’t see them as people,” Hahn said, “we as a society can still hold them as people that are deserving of being remembered.”  

Additional source: Gothamist

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login