Mayfield, then 46, had been arrested often enough to have seen the inside of many jails, including those at Rikers Island, the sprawling complex near La Guardia Airport.
But he had never laid eyes on the Vernon C. Bain Center, a hulking, 625-foot long royal blue barge in the East River topped with a nearly windowless five-story jail resembling Lego pieces stacked together.
“The heat was unbearable, and it was dark and cramped and sweaty,” Mayfield said of his experience at the jail. “We were in a cargo hold of a slave ship — a modern day slave ship owned by the City of New York.”
More than 10 years later — and 27 years after it first docked along the shores of Hunts Point — 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 in 1992 as a supposedly temporary and emergency fix for a soaring inmate population fueled by the crack epidemic.
But the number of inmates 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 Rikers 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.
The council must vote on the plan and, if approved, Rikers and Bain would close by 2026.
But the soft timeline for closing the barge has sparked outrage among elected officials and criminal justice advocates, who have demanded to know why the floating jail is even still around.
They have made the future of the facility central to the broader jail debate, insisting that it should be vacated and removed immediately before any other part of the plan moves forward.
“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.
So far, city officials have not revealed the order in which the jails would be shut down or whether the closing of the Bain Center could be expedited. The barge, which has 317 workers, costs nearly $24 million a year to operate.
“We also want to see the barge closed,” Dana Kaplan, a deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told 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.”
On Jan. 22, 1992, the Vernon C. Bain barge, named for a Rikers Island warden who died in a car accident, sailed into New York Harbor joining a fleet of four other floating jails. In the late 1980s, Mayor Edward I. Koch had envisioned these jails as the future of the city’s corrections system.
The city ordered the Bain from a shipbuilder in Louisiana at a time when the inmate population at Rikers was near capacity — 22,000 inmates every day — and was expected to grow. The shortage of facilities was so dire that the Department of Correction warned that temporary jail dormitories might have to be built.
Koch said the floating jails were needed if the city was to get serious about cracking down on crime.
“We have to have jails in which to put them, and we dock a jail barge alongside a neighborhood, there are opponents,” Koch said in a speech in 1989. “I say to these groups, ‘Would you rather have these people walking around in your neighborhood, or be in jail on a barge in your neighborhood?’ ”
The Bain Center was pulled by tugboats — it does not have motors — to Hunts Point, after the city had considered but dismissed other locations, including the Brooklyn Army Terminal and near Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but area residents rose up in protest.
But by the time the Bain Center arrived, the city’s jail population was declining and the city soon announced it would remove and likely sell two of the floating jails, one off Greenwich Village and the other near the Lower East Side, to a company that said it was going to turn them into scrap.
In the years since it opened, the Bain Center has stayed relatively the same. Inside, the walls and ceilings are still colored an off-white gray. The barge sways with the waves. Inmates can exercise on the top floor inside a caged-enclosed recreational area that has views of Rikers Island. From their cells, inmates can look out through tiny portholes.
“Rikers, in all its gory details, still had benefits over the barge,” said Mayfield, who spent 10 months between 2008 and 2009, at the Bain Center because he could not afford bail regarding his drug-possession charge. “One of those benefits was mobility and being able to move around and being able to go outside.”
Mayfield, who at age 57 is taking undergraduate classes at Columbia University on a scholarship, said he would never forget sweltering summer days inside the barge jail, breathing in steamy, acrid air.
“Closing Rikers is one thing. Closing the boat should have happened decades ago,” he said.
Critics say the Rikers Island complex, a collection of nine jails, has become emblematic of the country’s embrace of mass incarceration and of a criminal justice system that is biased against African Americans and Hispanics. It has also been the site of brutal attacks by officers on inmates and unsafe, squalid conditions that officers themselves have long complained has exposed them to attacks.
The Bain Center, which is much smaller than the Rikers complex, had the third-lowest rate for use-of-force by corrections officers in the city’s jails, according to the latest report by a federal monitor overseeing changes at New York jails. Yet, the rate has ticked upward, prompting the monitor to caution that the conditions at the barge “create reason to be watchful.”
In the early 1990s, the Hunts Point neighborhood around the barge was overrun by rampant prostitution, other crime, homelessness and junkyards. At night, the main attraction was strip clubs. Children in the area had some of the country’s highest asthma rates. The closest bus stop in Hunts Point, a roughly 900-acre peninsula in the South Bronx, was a 20-minute walk from the jail.
“Hunts Point was a place to put things that no one else wanted,” said John Robert, a former president of the local community board.
A little more than three years after it opened, the Department of Correction shut down the Bain Center, saying that the city’s lower jail population, about 17,900 at that time, did not warrant the cost. The city, after moving inmates and officers to the jails at Rikers, expected to save $2 million a month by closing the Bain Center.
But the closing was relatively short-lived. Mayor Rudy Giuliani reopened the Bain Center in the late 1990s as a juvenile detention facility and then as a jail for adult inmates.
The city’s inmate populations has dropped even more since it reopened, down now to just more than 7,000 inmates every day.
“That’s the nature of a lot of temporary things that become permanent in the city,” said Paul Lipson, a former chief of staff for Rep. José E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the area. “Once a city agency grabs a parcel of land, it’s very hard for them to relinquish it.”
Now, the barge is part of a changing Hunts Point.
The strip clubs have been shut down; violent crime, including homicides and rapes, has plunged by 280% from 1990 to 2018, according to the Police Department.
Down the street from the jail, Amazon opened a warehouse over the summer, where trucks line up throughout the day to pick up packages to be delivered.
The city’s Economic Development Corp., which owns much of the prime waterfront real estate in Hunts Point, has big plans for the area. It recently asked companies to submit ideas for a redesigned Hunts Point Produce Market, one of the neighborhood’s economic engines.
Roughly 16,000 trucks travel through the area, shuttling goods like produce, meats and beer from warehouses to restaurants and shops throughout New York City. The city, hoping to significantly reduce congestion, has announced plans to develop a marine terminal at Hunts Point.
City officials envision that the marine terminal could anchor a major shift in how goods like produce and lumber enter the New York market, moving them off roads and onto waterways.
Whatever the future holds for Hunts Point, it does not include a city jail taking up precious and valuable waterfront property, Salamanca said.
“We should give this land back and create jobs,” he said. “Some could be green space for the community so we can enjoy the view of the East River.”
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