Kenneth Williams has lived his entire life in Brooklyn, New York City, but one night in 2018, as he was being led in handcuffs across a narrow bridge, he learned about the city’s last floating prison.
Mr Williams, 62, remembers the image of the dirty water of the East River beneath his feet, the smell of fungus and the feeling of literally drowning. “Sometimes you can feel the ship hitting the mud. It reminds you that this is not a place to accommodate humans,” he said.
Located in shallow water at the edge of the South Bronx Industrial Park, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center is a five-story barge, the length of two football fields and holds 800 beds. Its structure is similar to that of a cargo ship loaded with containers.
Vernon C. Benn is used by the New York City government as a place of detention for prisoners awaiting trial. Photo: New York Daily News
Beginning in use in the late 1980s, in 1992, this floating prison was docked to help relieve the load on Rikers Island – New York City’s main jail complex for suspects awaiting trial. To date, it is the last functioning floating prison in the United States.
After three decades in business, Vernon C. Benn is finally closing its doors. According to the Associated Press on October 31, New York City officials said the ship would be fully evacuated by the end of the week.
Most of the 500 people still detained on the ship would be transferred to Rikers Island, although the detention center on the island would eventually close. It’s part of a plan to replace New York’s troubled correctional system with a network of smaller prisons.
The marshy area of the Vernon C. Bain Floating Prison is located between the waste water treatment plant and the wholesale fish market.
New York City Department of Corrections spokeswoman Latima Johnson declined to say what future plans are for Vernon C. Benn. At present, the ship is still under the management of this department.
In recent years, this floating prison has attracted attention as several prisoners have died of unusual causes. Last September, Mr Gregory Acevedo, 44, jumped from the roof of a train to commit suicide. In July 2021, Stephen Khadu, 24, died from a form of meningitis that can be treated.
Khadu’s family said he often complained about mold in the jail food and bites. Khadu has been awaiting trial for almost two years after being detained in 2020.
A football field and floating prison windows on the top floor. Photo: jag9889
The ship was painted blue and white, a color that has faded considerably. People detained here said that every time it rains, water leaks from the walls of the ship, sometimes causing short circuits.
The inner wall of the ship was heavily rusted. The detention area is extremely hot in summer and the cages are only a few dozen centimeters apart.
“If you turn to face the person lying in the next bed, your knees will touch each other. If they snore, you can even smell their bad breath,” Mr Williams said. He was detained here for several months, then released.
Except for the basketball court on the top floor of the ship (covered with cages), the only natural light the detainees receive is through small windows.
The floating prison is located in an area hidden from the eyes of residents and tourists. Photo: Last Mile
The use of floating prisons in the United States has long been controversial, dating back to the early days of the American Revolution, when thousands of Americans died on British ships moored in New York Harbor.
The Vernon C. Bain Floating Prison has long been considered a “brutal relic” of mass incarceration, and a symbol of the failure of New York officials to reform dangerous prisons. The danger is located on the outskirts of the city.
Along with the Vernon C. Benn, four other floating prisons were also operating in New York.