NEW YORK -- City officials, faced with too many prisoners and not enough jail space, are ready to move 400 prisoners onto a British barge that last saw action five years ago in the Falkland Islands war.
City workers are renovating the Bibby Venture, a four-story troop ship anchored in the East River, in an effort to relieve the strain on city jails, which are filled beyond capacity.
State authorities approved the jail barge this week, but the plan was put on hold after a state appeals court reinstated a restraining order pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by opponents in the community.
This is not the first time that New York has tried to put its most intractable problems out to sea. Last spring, the infamous garbage barge undertook a 45-day odyssey to the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Long Island, and welfare officials are seeking a boat or barge for use as a shelter for the homeless.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia are, like New York City, under court order to improve prison conditions. The total number of inmates in federal, state and local prisons reached a record 820,000 last year.
Florida has placed inmates in tents, and Connecticut is using two National Guard barracks for those convicted of drunk-driving. Philadelphia officials offered last week to put up more than $150,000 bail to free 300 detainees.
Richard J. Koehler, New York City's corrections commissioner, said that no one would "rationally plan" on housing prisoners aboard a barge but that delays in prison construction and other setbacks have left him no choice.
"The barge is not a long-term solution, but for the kind of inmates we're going to put there, it's perfect," Koehler said. He said he is looking for "relatively soft inmates," such as nonviolent detainees accused of drug possession and other misdemeanors.
Others are less sanguine. Kenneth Schoen, who monitors city prisons for the federal courts, has called the barge a "Rube Goldberg scheme" and "a labyrinth of spaces that is largely unsupervisable by either sight or sound."
The barge features long, narrow corridors and individual cabins designed for soldiers. Critics say its fire hoses, pipe racks and other fixtures could easily be made into weapons and hidden in the low, prefabricated ceilings.
"It doesn't seem feasible to safely house inmates there," said Ted Katz of the Legal Aid Society's prisoner rights project. "This is a typical example of crisis management."
Katz said the barge would require many more guards than a conventional jail and that inmates would have to be bused to another jail to receive visitors.
He contended that many nonviolent offenders could be diverted to non-jail programs, noting that the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new jail space since 1983, only to find the new cells filling rapidly.
The city, which also plans to obtain a second British barge, is leasing the $19 million Bibby Venture over five years with an option to buy. The vessel is docked on a South Street pier formerly used by a banana-boat firm and is to remain there for at least eight months until a permanent dock can be built at Rikers Island, site of a major city prison.
Sheldon Silver, a state assembly member who lives five blocks from the South Street pier, filed the suit that has blocked use of the jail barge. He charged the city with improperly changing the pier's use without a public hearing; Koehler said no hearing is needed because the city is merely substituting inmates for bananas.
Silver said the barge is "in full view" of an elementary school, whose students would look out on an open-air recreation area ringed by barbed wire. He also said noise and congestion would disrupt the surrounding neighborhood.
Beatings, rapes and other violent incidents have been increasing in New York's 11 jails, where bunk beds are often stacked in dormitory-style rooms. Seven guards and three inmates committed suicide last year.
The city's jail census is 15,400, including 11,500 detainees awaiting trail unable to make bail. Koehler said the state legislature has refused to allow placement of detainees in work-release programs.
Koehler said he is not surprised at the litigation, noting that community opposition to new jails -- including facilities planned for Manhattan and Staten Island -- is routine.
"Everywhere we go, we have to deal with lawsuits," he said. "We don't open a thing without going through this."