TORONTO -- Aerial video shows mass graves being dug and bodies being buried by inmates at an island cemetery in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency in New York.

The drone video was shot on April 2 and released by the Hart Island Project, an advocacy group aiming to bring more transparency to how New York City handles burials, and pushing for better public access to the island site and burial information.

Over the years, Hart Island has also been home to prison camps, a psychiatric institution, a homeless shelter, a jail and a drug rehabilitation centre.

Now, the public cemetery on Hart Island allows for the interment of multiple bodies at the same site. The Hart Island Project says the island has been the final resting place for “unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers” since 1869, and it’s estimated the remains of more than a million people are buried there.

The aerial footage, which was verified and corroborated by Storyful, shows wooden coffins being placed inside a mass grave at the cemetery.

Vincent Mingalone, a former inmate of New York City’s Rikers Island prison complex, narrates the five-minute video, describing in detail his own past experience doing burial labour on Hart Island.

In the video, Mingalone talked about the tasks he and other inmates were asked to do, including mapping burial plots and writing the names of the dead on the coffins.

“I must say, we did take pride in what we did and we knew we were the only ones there for these people and you know, it’s just always intriguing that there’s so many stories, like we didn’t know this person, we didn’t see this person, they’re inside of a box,” Mingalone said.

A report published by The Intercept on March 31 suggested that prisoners with convictions were being offered US$6 an hour to dig the graves.

The same report also outlined a response from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who confirmed that prisoners were burying people there, but maintained that it was not necessarily related to the state’s deadly COVID-19 emergency. Inmates have been digging graves on Hart Island for years, he said.