Docked in the shallows off an industrial edge of the New York City's South Bronx, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center is a five-story jail barge that stretches the length of two football fields, resembling a container ship stacked with cargo. It arrived in 1992 as a temporary measure to ease overcrowding on Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex for detainees awaiting trial. Three decades later, the 800-bed lockup, the last operating prison ship in the U.S., finally is closing down, the Associated Press reports. The ship will be fully vacated by week's end as part of a plan to replace the city’s correctional system with a network of smaller jails. For now, most of the roughly 500 people incarcerated on the ship will be transferred to Rikers Island, according to the Department of Correction, though the jails there are eventually supposed to close down, too. Detainees and advocates have long regarded the boat as a grim vestige of mass incarceration, an enduring symbol of the city’s failures to reform dangerous jails.
In recent years, there have been two deaths: Last September, Gregory Acevedo, 44, jumped from the top of the ship to his death; The year before that, Stephan Khadu, 24, died after contracting a form of treatable meningitis while in custody. Darren Mack of the advocacy group Freedom Agenda described the boat as a “modern-day slave ship” that warehouses detainees, mostly Black and Latino men, with minimal oversight. Inmates get a daily hour of recreation on a caged upper deck. Otherwise, their only natural light beams through the ship’s tiny portholes. Its fading blue and white exterior is also known to leak in the rain, occasionally short-circuiting the electrical system. Inside, rust cracks off the walls and detainees say they are packed into dormitories that grow suffocatingly hot in the summer, with cots that sit just a few inches from each other. “If you faced the person in the bed next to you, your knees would touch,” said Williams, who was incarcerated there for a few months and has been released. “If they snored, you could smell their breath.”