Historic upstate New York prison cemetery being used again for coronavirus-related fatalities

Prison workers in 1959 look over historic cemetery at what's now Fishkill Correctional Facility.
Prison workers in 1959 look over historic cemetery at what's now Fishkill Correctional Facility.

In a wooded area behind the Beacon High School tennis courts near Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York is a burial ground with rows of headstones of the same size and shape, spaced apart with military precision.
The relatively unknown plot — a late 19th-century cemetery that once belonged to the now-shuttered Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane — has seen the burials of hundreds of people, beginning with those committed to the infamous asylum and later those imprisoned at Fishkill.
During the coronavirus outbreak, the historic site near North Elm St. and Tilden Ave. in Beacon continues to serve the same purpose it did 128 years ago: As a final resting place for the unclaimed remains of people who die behind bars.
“There’s not nearly as many burials as there was 100 some years ago, but they do keep that ground for the same purpose — either the family can’t or won’t take the remains,” said Emily Murnane, a trustee of the Beacon Historical Society.
Tombstones of incarcerated people buried at Fishkill Correctional Facility.
Tombstones of incarcerated people buried at Fishkill Correctional Facility.(Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP Campaign)
“But when you’re back there, it still feels sacred, very removed from noise," she said. "There are a lot of evergreens, gorgeous old trees and a (grass) carpet that muffles the sound ... That’s the Victorian sensibility. Even in those brutal state institutions, there was a great respect for death.”
At least three incarcerated people from state prisons have been buried at the cemetery since March 1 ― one from Fishkill, another from Sing Sing and a third from Otisville. The person from Sing Sing, who died March 30, and the individual from Otisville, who died April 3, had both tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Friday, 16 people in state custody — including five from Fishkill — have died from coronavirus. Of the 821 who have tested positive for COVID-19, 150 of them have also been at Fishkill — the prison with the highest number of coronavirus cases.

The new graves are marked with nearly identical versions of the now-weathered trapezium headstones that have dotted the grounds since 1892.

“(The) graves do not have names on them, only numbers. That can seem very heartless — but back then, it was easier on their records to match up numbers with names,” Murnane said of the markers, many of which bear either a cross or the Star of David.

“There were a lot of very famous people buried here, and grave robbing was a big problem at the time,” she added, noting that serial killer Lizzie Halliday is among those interred at the grounds. “That tradition continues today.”

Criminal justice advocates visited the site in recent weeks to pay their respects to those who have died during the pandemic, and to call on Gov. Cuomo to release more people from prison.

The recent vigils have brought some attention to the grounds — an otherwise secluded meadow set off from the bustle of suburban life.

“I remember thinking it was such a sad thing that this cemetery was back there ... But the whole (place) is handled with care,” Murnane said. “There are no signs on the road telling you where it is out of respect for what the place is, so that remains (are) able to rest peacefully.”

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