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New plaques give names to those buried at New York State prisons

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For generations, people who were incarcerated in New York State and who died in prison without next of kin to bury them ended up in cemeteries just outside of prison walls. There were gravestones, but without their names. As member station WNYC's Matt Katz reports, that's now changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMER TAPPING)

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Beyond the massive concrete walls of Green Haven Correctional Facility, 60 miles outside of New York City, prison groundskeepers are kneeling down, tacking plaques to old gravestones.

That was James Pembleton. Date of birth, 1/21/44. Date of death, 2/10/01.

For generations, the names of the deceased weren't put on gravestones in New York, just prisoner identification numbers etched into the stone. But recently, New York officials updated regulations for burials at the state's nine prison graveyards. And so now, with these new plaques, the dead are finally being identified by name.

ALFRED TWYMAN: We recognize their humanity. We recognize them as people - not just a number, but people. So to me, spiritually, as a pastor, it's a wonderful thing.

KATZ: Reverend Alfred Twyman, a prison chaplain, says prisoners who die without loved ones with the means or ability to collect the remains should not have their convictions define them in death.

TWYMAN: Any mistakes they made, they were judged. That's all been done. But now here they can lay to rest and lay to rest peacefully.

KATZ: Matthew Hahn was incarcerated years ago, and his mother-in-law lives near the prison graveyard at Green Haven. She told him that some gravestones there didn't have names. So last winter, Hahn walked over, and groundskeepers, before politely kicking him off the property, told him that they were in the process of adding the names.

MATTHEW HAHN: In many ways, the way that we talk about people who are incarcerated, the way that we treat people who are incarcerated, the way that we bury people who died while incarcerated is an attempt at depersonalizing them, at depersonifying (ph) them.

KATZ: Green Haven's warden, Superintendent Mark Miller, says there are 116 people laid to rest here in this rolling meadow filled with daffodils, and they're all afforded small funerals led by a chaplain aligning with their religion.

MARK MILLER: We take a lot of pride in the barrows here.

KATZ: Late last year, a 65-year-old man died in prison. He had been locked up since he was 25, and the family couldn't afford a burial. But they could come up to Green Haven from New York City. So the prison arranged a graveside service with a chaplain. The maintenance staff prepared a casket covered in a black cloth.

MILLER: We allowed them to lay flowers on it and give them the proper closure. And they knew that they had the dignity of a proper burial.

KATZ: The new grave markers still have the prisoner ID number underneath the name. As someone who's formerly incarcerated, Matthew Hahn doesn't like that the numbers are still there, but mostly he wants those who are once incarcerated to not be forgotten, either in death or life.

HAHN: The longer a person is in prison for, the more people forget them.

KATZ: At least now, he says, their names can be remembered in stone forever.

For NPR News in New York, I'm Matt Katz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Katz