The East River prison barge, intended to be temporary, draws ire amid plans to close Rikers

October 10, 2019

Photo via Wiki Commons

The Vernon C. Bain Center, an 800-capacity floating jail in the East River, costs $24 million a year to operate and was supposed to be permanently shut down decades ago. Opened in 1992 to help with an overcrowded prison system due in part to the crack epidemic, the 625-foot-long motorless barge has been docked along New York City’s shoreline since then, the New York Times reports. And as the city plans to shut down Rikers Island, overhaul the criminal justice system, and create more humane jails with fewer inmates, advocates say the barge has to go. The city has pledged to close the facility once the City Council votes on the prison reform plan; both Rikers and Bain would close by 2026.

The parking lot and the main entrance to the barge, via Jim HendersonWiki Commons

Criminal justice advocates want to know, however, why the floating jail, which first docked at a very-different-from-today crime-riddled Hunt’s Point, still exists despite the fact that the city’s daily inmate population has plummeted to around 7,000.

Dana Kaplan, a deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, would like to see the barge closed, telling Council members at a recent hearing, “We do not want a continued vestige of what was not supposed to be a permanent solution and what is not representative of what we think is the right justice system.”

The Bain Center actually was shut down by the Department of Correction, albeit briefly, about three years after it opened, due to a drop in the city’s jail population. Inmates and officers were moved to Rikers in an attempt to save $2 million a month. Then, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reopened the barge in the late 1990s as a juvenile detention facility, and soon it was back in use as a jail for adult inmates.

The Hunts Point neighborhood has changed since the Bain Center docked off its shores: Violent crime has dropped by 280 percent between 1990 and 2018. Just up the street from the jail, Amazon has opened a warehouse; trucks line up daily to pick up parcels to be delivered.

And the city recently announced plans to develop a marine terminal at Hunts Point to help reduce the congestion caused by those–and other–trucks. Paul Lipson, a former chief of staff for neighborhood Representative José E. Serrano, commented to the Times, “That’s the nature of a lot of temporary things that become permanent in the city. Once a city agency grabs a parcel of land, it’s very hard for them to relinquish it.”

[Via NYTimes]


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