Little known even to New Yorkers, a floating prison barge sits off the shore of Hunts Point in the Bronx. In the late 1980s, New York City jails and prisons were filling past capacity and there was nowhere on land to expand. The solution devised by Mayor Edward Koch’s administration was to create jail barges, the first of which arrived in 1988. The Bibby Resolution and the Bibby Venture were formerly British troop carriers repurposed as jails. Those two ships were sold in 1994, when the 47,326 ton Vernon C. Bain Center arrived in the East River to replace them.
Built in New Orleans in 1992, “The Boat” is now stationed near Hunts Point in The Bronx just one mile west of the SUNY Maritime College. At the time, the $161 million construction budget — $35 million more than was originally planned — made the Bain prison barge the most expensive jail ever. Coast Guard regulations mandate that a minimum of three maritime crew members, a mate, an oiler, and an engineer, be on board at all times adding an additional cost of about $650,000 a year.
Named for a well-respected warden who died in a car accident, the Vernon C. Bain Center is currently used by the New York City Department of Corrections as a temporary holding and processing center. It was built to take on the overflow of detainees from Rikers Island, and can house approximately 800 medium-to maximum-security inmates. Additionally, the 5-story barge also contains a library, recreation rooms, three chapels, a medical facility, and a basketball court on the top deck. As such, it was named the largest operational prison ship in the world in 2014.
It is important to distinguish however, that those that the majority of those held within the New York City jail system have not yet been convicted of crimes. They are awaiting their hearings and are unable to post bail in the meantime. The New York City jail system also holds those convicted and sentenced to one year or less of jail time.
As part of the plan to close Rikers Island passed by New York City Council in 2019, the Vernon C. Bain Center would also be closed. The projected timeline is to close Rikers Island by 2026 and create or repurpose jails that already exist in each borough to handle the detainee population, which has already been falling in numbers in recent years. The elimination of cash bail for misdemeanors and non violent crimes at the beginning of 2020, along with a shift by district attorneys to stop prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases has contributed to a drop in detainees.
The Vernon C. Bain Center prison barge is located amidst an industrial zone which is also home to the Fulton Fish Market. Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. Access to the barge is difficult due to security, but even the road to the entrance is poorly maintained. The best way to view the floating jail is by boat. From a distance, it looks like any freight barge but as you get closer, you see the cages on top that enclose the few outdoor areas there are. You can also view it from a little more at a distance at the entrance to the Fulton Fish Market.