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NYC Floating Jail May Finally be Closed

As an ex-president of a local community board lamented, “Hunts Point was a place to put things that no one else wanted.”

In January 1992, tugboats pulled the Vernon C. Bain Center, a featureless five-story jail, into port. The facility, which holds 800 prisoners and has over 300 employees, did not seem out of place among the strip clubs and other eyesores that pockmarked the neighborhood at the time.

Much has changed in the intervening 28 years. Mirroring the renewal of Times Square, Hunts Point has shuttered the sex shops; violent crime has plummeted 280 percent since 1990. Next up is a planned marine terminal along the waterfront, which the city hopes will shift movement of goods from congested roadways to the East River. Part of that shift will include closing the Rain Center to free up potentially valuable real estate.

Bain is believed to be the last floating jail in the nation. It rocks in the wake of the river, and small portholes provide prisoners their only window to the outside world. Conditions inside rank as medieval.

“The heat was unbearable, and it was dark and cramped and sweaty,” recalled Marvin Mayfield, a Bronx native who was incarcerated at the facility. “We were in a cargo hold of a slave ship—a modern-day slave ship owned by the City of New York.”

The city has plans to close both Bain and the Rikers Island prison complex as part of an effort to create a more humane criminal justice system. The closures may not take effect until 2026 even if the City Council approves the proposal, though, and it remains to be seen what impact the COVID-19 crisis that ravaged the city will have on the timeline.

Critics question why the jail barge still exists 28 years after it was floated as a temporary measure. The exploding prison population it was meant to address has long since receded, yet Bain remains as an annual $24 million reminder to taxpayers of their support for a system slanted against economically disadvantaged people of color.

“Closing Rikers is one thing,” said Mayfield. “Closing the boat should have happened decades ago.” 


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