Final US Prison Ship, Symbol of Mass Incarceration, to Shut Down in New York City

Final US Prison Ship, Symbol of Mass Incarceration, to Shut Down in New York City

The Last Floating Jail in New York City to Close Down

Kenneth Williams, a Brooklyn native, discovered the existence of New York City’s last floating jail, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, on a fateful night in 2018. Crossing a narrow footbridge in shackles, he experienced the sinking feeling of being confined in a place never meant for human habitation. Docked in the shallows of the South Bronx since 1992, this five-story jail barge, resembling a container ship, was initially intended as a temporary solution to address overcrowding on Rikers Island. Now, after three decades, the 800-bed facility is finally closing its doors.

Officials have announced that the ship will be fully vacated by the end of the week as part of a broader plan to revamp New York City’s troubled correctional system with smaller jails. Most of the approximately 500 incarcerated individuals on the ship will be transferred to Rikers Island, although the long-term plan is to close down the jails there as well.

For years, detainees and advocates have viewed the boat as a grim reminder of mass incarceration and a symbol of the city’s failure to reform its dangerous jails hidden away from the public eye. Recent incidents have further highlighted the flaws of the floating jail, such as the death of Gregory Acevedo, who jumped from the ship in September 2020, and Stephan Khadu, who died from a treatable form of meningitis while in custody the year prior.

Critics like Darren Mack, co-director of the advocacy group Freedom Agenda, describe the boat as a “modern-day slave ship” with minimal oversight, disproportionately housing Black and Latino men. While the closure is seen as long overdue, Mack emphasizes that transferring people to the equally problematic conditions on Rikers Island is not a satisfactory solution.

The Vernon C. Bain is the last remaining floating jail of a fleet used by New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Situated across the river from Rikers Island, the ship offers detainees limited access to natural light and recreational activities on a caged upper deck. Its deteriorating exterior and interior conditions, including rusted walls and cramped dormitories, have contributed to the boat’s notorious reputation.

The use of maritime jails in the United States has a controversial history dating back to the Revolutionary War, where thousands of Americans died aboard British ships. While the concept has been employed sparingly, often drawing allegations of cruelty and neglect, the Vernon C. Bain and other floating jails were seen as low-cost, temporary facilities during the crack epidemic that overwhelmed Rikers Island in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With the closure of the Vernon C. Bain, Lezandre Khadu, whose son Stephan died on the ship, plans to visit and celebrate its long-overdue shutdown. The future of the vessel remains uncertain, but for many, the closure of this floating jail represents a step forward in reforming the city’s correctional system and ensuring that no one else has to endure the deplorable conditions witnessed on board.