Elected officials demand the mayor remove Hunts Point’s floating barge
Just two days after Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Rep. Jose E. Serrano told 100-plus protesters that they would stand by them in defiance of the mayor’s plan to build a new jail in Mott Haven, three more elected officials addressed a group of activists in Hunts Point, to pressure the mayor to get rid of a jail that’s been around for 26 years.
At a May 3rd press conference, jail reform advocates joined City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., State Sen. Jeffrey Klein and Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo in front of the barbed wire fence that separates the Fulton Fish Market parking lot on Food Center Drive from the Vernon C. Bain Center, to demand that the mayor close the jail otherwise known as “The Boat,” which houses more than 800 detainees at a time.
The mayor has said that the city will close the floating jail when the rest of the city’s plan to replace the dilapidated Rikers Island jail with four borough-based jails is complete. But the elected officials and the protesters said that 10 more years of The Boat is 10 years too many.
Marvin Mayfield, a leader for the #CLOSErikers campaign, told the protesters that police arrested him in 2008 as he was walking out of a Bronx school that he had broken into, looking to steal whatever he could find. Although he came out empty-handed, he was later charged with third-degree burglary and spent 11 months on The Boat. Mayfield, now 55, says he was addicted to drugs during that period and “did things that are typical for somebody who does that sort of thing. You know how that goes.”
Mayfield lost his job as a cook in a Bronx restaurant because of the incident. Because he couldn’t afford a private lawyer, he was assigned an overworked public defender who provided substandard counsel, he said, adding that he went to court 42 times during those 11 months. For most of those court trips, a judge wasn’t even present in the courtroom.
“Being inside that place was like being on a slave ship,” he remembers of his time afloat. “I am one of the many thousands of men who have suffered the errors of The Boat because I couldn’t pay bail.” The detail Mayfield says most sticks out in his memory is the floating prison’s “lack of air. The place was sealed up like a coffin.” Detainees were commonly forced to strip, and inappropriately touched, in the presence of multiple male and female officers, he said.
The Boat was the idea of then-Mayor Ed Koch in 1988, during the height of the Crack epidemic. Four years later, when it began to accept detainees, then-Mayor David Dinkins insisted the arrangement would be temporary.
“Here we are 26 years later, asking a Democratic mayor who wants us to trust his words,” said Salamanca, who chairs the City Council’s Land Use Committee. “Mr. Mayor, this could be your legacy.” He urged the mayor to “shut down the barge and give this piece of land back to the community.”
State Sen. Klein said that “only here in the Bronx could we have a barge that’s been here for 27 years” on attractive, waterfront property.
Rev. Wendy Calderón-Payne, executive director of the faith-based group BronxConnect, which aspires to replace jails with community programs, told the protesters that the “the notion that the barge is better than Rikers” is false. “The jail is part of Rikers.”
“So many of my young people come from this zip code,” she said. “The education system here is not good.” She urged the mayor to act quickly to close The Boat because, when his term is up in four years, “we don’t know who the next mayor will be.”
Soundview resident Darryl Herring, 61, spent three weeks at Vernon C. Bain in 2015 before being transferred to Rikers, for a charge for which he was later exonerated. Herring, representing the group Vocal new York, recalled how cold it was on The Boat, and called conditions there “a human rights issue.” Like Mayfield, Herring said he remained locked up because he couldn’t afford to pay bail. “Why do [detainees] have to be locked up because they don’t have money?”