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Jailboat Wave of the Future for Prisons

October 1, 1987

TILBURY, England (AP) _ The gray structure moored in the Thames River looks as drab as any prison, but renovators who turned it into a floating jail are sure that New York inmates will like it better than Rikers Island.

In its previous life, the barge Bibby Venture served as floating barracks for British troops during the Falkland Islands War with Argentina. Now it’s loaded with hundreds of prefabricated cellblocks, a hospital, and even an exercise yard, awaiting transport to the East River.

New York City’s Department of Corrections has signed a five-year, $20 million lease in hopes the jailboat will ease crowding in city jails, which are at about 103 percent capacity. For the past five weeks, the barge has been sitting at Tilbury Docks at the mouth of the Thames while workers converted it.

″This is palatial compared to Rikers Island,″ said John Hogarth, commercial manager for Bibby Line Ltd., the barge’s owners and renovators. ″I am quite convinced that the inmates within the Rikers complex will want to be here. You’ll never know you’re on a ship.″

Only the waves lapping against the hull give it away.

The shallow-water barge will serve as a minimum-security institution for 396 inmates, said Capt. Nigel Malpass, ship manager for Bibby.

Steel mesh capable of withstanding rocket-propelled grenades has been placed over the portholes, and bulletproof glass is installed inside.

Cabins that housed officers during the Falkland Islands war in 1982 have been converted to holding cells, where inmates will stay while their paperwork is done.

The jailboat, 325 feet long and 93 feet wide, resembles a series of prefabricated trailers stacked side by side and on top of each other.

Atop the jailboat is an open-air exercise yard, surrounded by a wire fence topped with rows of barbed wire.

Malpass said that because the barge is not an ocean-going vessel, it must be carried across the Atlantic on a carrier ship. Loading was scheduled Friday and the 2 1/2 -week trip was to begin Monday.

The carrier ship will be filled with ballast until its decks are below water so the barge can move into position. The ballast will then be pumped out to refloat the ship with the barge on deck.

The jailboat first will be moored at a pier in Manhattan and then moved next spring to a pier under construction off Rikers Island, the city’s main correctional institution.

Mayor Ed Koch said the pier is being designed to accommodate two jailboats. A converted Staten Island ferry is already docked at Rikers Island, but it is not yet in operation as a prison.

City Correction Commissioner Richard J. Koehler said the total cost of the British barge, including related pier work and most furnishings, will be about $73,000 a bed, compared with $125,000 a bed for land-based facilities that could take two years or longer to build.

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