Return of the incredible hulks

As Britain looks at floating prisons to solve overcrowding

Standing at the far end of the prison exercise yard in a strong wind it was impossible to hear the guard, but clearly he was agitated. Because the two of us, journalist and photographer, happened to be wearing loaned prison-issue jackets, he had assumed we were inmates. "For a moment there I thought you were going to jump", he admitted half-jokingly on discovering his mistake.

In this context, to "jump" implies one thing: to attempt escape. For this prison is different from others - the Vernon C Bain is a prison barge or, as the New York City Correction Department prefers to call it, a "floating detention facility". In the three-year life of the Bain only one inmate has made such an attempt: he could not swim and was quickly retrieved.

Docked on a bleak promontory of warehouses and sewage plants in the South Bronx, the Bain has suddenly become the object of much British interest. Another on-board tour was given recently to visiting officers from the British prison service. They, like us, wanted to explore the practicality of a place like this and for a very urgent reason: Britain is negotiating to buy another such barge once operated by New York, though no longer in operation.

That barge is called the Resolution. Considerably smaller than the Bain - and assuredly less impressive - its life-story includes a stint as a barracks for British soldiers in the Falklands in the aftermath of the conflict there. It and a sister ship, the Venture, were purchased by New York in 1987 when the city's own prisons were overfilled to bursting point. Originally moored at piers on different sides of Lower Manhattan, they were abandoned by the prison service in 1992 and sold to a European line in 1994.

Faced with its own overcrowding crisis now, the Government has a simple plan: to buy the Resolution, plop it into a much bigger, ocean-going barge and bring it across the Atlantic. Negotiations for the purchase are contingent on planning permission being granted by the city council of Weymouth, where it would be docked - a planning hearing is scheduled for 5 February. Just conceivably, the Resolution could be docked and ready by April. An alternative prison barge in Denmark is also being considered.

The image of prison ships as floating hellholes comes, in part, from history that was made right here in New York - by the British. During the American Revolution, multitudes of captured soldiers were incarcerated aboard the Jersey and other creaking British naval ships moored in the Wallabout dock area of Brooklyn. The unfortunate Americans were allowed gently to rot and more than 11,000 expired.

Their tour on the Bain, at least, must have left the British officials encouraged. Purpose-built in New Orleans at a cost of $161m (almost pounds 100m ) and put into service in 1992, the Bain rises high above its dock and, painted white and blue, looks much like a smart industrial plant. It can accommodate 800 inmates in a degree of comfort not offered by most American jails on land. Dressed in their own casual clothes, most are on board short-term - either awaiting trial or transfer to a land facility elsewhere.

Inside the Bain, it is easy to forget you are on water. It rocks only occasionally when other large ships pass by, explains its deputy warden, Tom Minti. "I always say to people that if I was to take you on here blindfolded, you would never know you were on water." There are reminders, however: the entire structure is steel, and occasionally you feel the vibrations from the internal heating and air-conditioning systems. (It has no engines.) Everywhere there is pale linoleum, except inside the mosque on the bottom deck, which is carpeted. The chapel, next door, has lino and a wooden altar.

Among the officers, the efficiency of the Bain evokes obvious pride. Once an officer on the Resolution and now on the Bain, Captain Tom McCann (the rank is a prison one, with no maritime significance) is happy it is not the Bain that is for sale. "Send this to England and I'm going with it," he says. After shooing us out to the open exercise yard, with stunning views south to Manhattan obscured only by 15ft fencing topped with razor-wire, he shows off the inside gym - a space that would be the envy of most schools.

Nor, it seems, does operating a prison on water present any particular problems. Coast Guard rules require permanent residence by a ship's mate, an oiler and a ship's engineer. Occasionally, divers are sent below to scrape barnacles from the hull. And the Bain's record of only one escape attempt (failed) suggests no special security problems. "There is no difficulty," explains Mr McCann. "If you like, we have the advantage of a natural barrier of water that goes back to ancient times of castles with moats. Inside, our procedures are no different to any other prison."

The British may have been distinctly less taken by the Resolution, however. Unfortunately, perhaps, it is moored now at a remote quayside in Brooklyn not far from the infamous waters at Wallabout. As well as being much smaller than the Bain - its capacity is for only 384 inmates - it was not built to hold prisoners. Painted in a uniform navy grey, it has the appearance of a flat barge with five layers of Portakabins piled on top of one another. Accommodation is in two- man cells with strip lights and spartan wooden bunks. The outdoor exercise area, by comparison with the Bain, is tiny.

Nor apparently, is it in anything like such good shape. Our brief foray aboard the Resolution, (before being swiftly ejected by a gentleman who was less than delighted to see us) revealed workers toiling with steel plates to patch up areas of the main deck that had rusted all the way through. One corner is stacked high with cases of Rust-Oleum, an anti- oxidant treatment.

Apparently, then, work on renovating the Resolution has already begun. The cost of the repairs, of its transport across the ocean and of the preparation of a secure dock at Weymouth is likely to be very considerable. And should it eventually arrive in Britain, it will hardly be as salubrious as the Bain. But, if it's any consolation to prospective inmates, nor will it offer any of the gruesomeness to be found aboard the Jersey more than 200 years ago.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture