Monday, January 14, 2008

Floating prisons?

Though I hesitate mentioning it lest I give any Texas Youth Commission officials more bad ideas, I enjoyed this somewhat theoretical but informative article from Bryan Finoki at his blog, Subtopia: A field guide to military urbanism, on the history of "floating prisons." His essay not only details and links to a great deal of history I'd never read before, he hints that floating prisons may still be used today by the US military or intelligence community as part of the War on Terror to incarcerate suspects outside of territorial waters where local or US laws may fetter their activities.

From this source we learn a bit about the unhappy history of using ships or "hulks" as floating prisons in Britain, an idea which apparently endured trouble from the start: "The plan of confining offenders on board hulks was first adopted in England in 1776; but so early was their management abused, that in 1778, it was inquired into by Parliament; and in 1785, reported to have singularly improved the practice of villany."

Much more recently in the United States, Subtopia informs us, floating prisons have been met with less than enthusiastic welcomes from federal authorities, though New York City still operates a jail ship at Rikers Island:
during the early 90’s when New York City, aiming to fix its overcrowded prison problems, built a “five-story jail barge” –- the Bain -- as big as two football fields, to store 800 prisoners, that was at one point being considered as something perhaps to be mimicked in Norfolk, Virginia, and New Jersey, but who would later scrap that plan. At the time, it was considered New York’s most expensive jail at $161m, and was delivered 2 years late and considerably over budget. The city operated two other barges prior - the Bibby Venture and Bibby Resolution – which were eventually closed in 1992 when “they ran afoul of federal authorities.” The Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), moored nearby Rikers Island (an island jail) is still used today.
Fascinating stuff. Clearly the idea has declined significantly in popularity in the modern era, but has yet to have been completely extinguished among corrections officials looking for ever cheaper ways to house prisoners. The Dutch constructed a floating prison for illegal immigrants, for example, albeit amidst significant opposition.

I present this information not as any suggestion or practice I'd endorse, but only to point out a quirky approach to incarceration from a past, less civilized age. Floating prisons today are likely a bad idea, certainly for Texas with its hurricane-prone coastline. But given the topics this blog covers I was intrigued by the history Finoki provided, and thought other Grits readers may enjoy reading his essay as well.

(Image: A British ship that some officials want to transform into a floating jail.)


Anonymous said...

Actually, we tried it again in 1997 with HMP Wear which was docked at Portsmouth. It was closed in 2005, and had only 1 escape during its use.

I cant see the folks at Galveston wanting one of those on thier beachfront.

Anonymous said...

TDC looked at the "floating Facilities" in the mid-80's; Thank the good Lord this idea was tossed!

Retired 2004

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I should have known, Retired, that if an idea that bad were "floating" around out there, TDCJ would have at least considered it!

Hell, in the '80s nearly any bad idea was fair game! I'm surprised we don't have a big fat prison barge in the middle of Town Lake in Austin, or maybe Houston's Buffalo Bayou. Thanks heavens for small favors.

Anonymous said...

"Hurricane prone coast" My God! You've given the "LAWNORDER" people more than enough reason to try it with those words!

DAC said...

Maybe floating border levee prison barges with pepper spray turrets where people must go to vote and seek indigent medical care. HMMMMM Sounds like a GOP dream.