The Vernon C. Bain Center is a hulking, 625-foot long royal blue barge in New York City’s East River topped with a nearly windowless five-story jail resembling Lego pieces stacked together, reports the New York Times. A former inmate describes his experience as resembling “a cargo hold of a slave ship — a modern-day slave ship owned by the City of New York.” Twenty-seven years after it first docked, the Bain Center, a largely unknown and overlooked workhorse of the New York City jail system, houses up to 800 inmates every day. It opened as a supposedly temporary and emergency fix for a soaring inmate population fueled by the crack epidemic.
The inmate total has plummeted at Bain, thought to be the country’s only floating jail. Now, the facility has been pushed out of the shadows as New York City pursues an ambitious plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail and build a new criminal justice system with more humane jails and fewer inmates. The city has pledged to close the Bain Center as part of the plan, which has won the support of criminal justice advocates, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio and many members of the City Council. Under the plan, Rikers and Bain would close by 2026. The timeline for closing the barge has outraged officials and criminal justice advocates, who have demanded to know why the floating jail is still around. “Sink the boat, get rid of it and sit with the community about how we can best utilize that open space there,” said Rafael Salamanca Jr., a councilman from the Bronx whose district includes the jail. The barge, which has 317 workers, costs nearly $24 million a year to operate.