Flashback: Villagers mutinied over Hudson prison barge plan

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BY YANNIC RACK | Today, politicians are debating whether to replace Rikers Island with neighborhood jails. But 25 years ago, Villagers were worried about a different form of detention center coming to their neighborhood — a floating prison barge, the Bibby Venture, which the city wanted to moor at Pier 40.

The plan caused alarm, and local residents presented “a united front” against the plan when they voiced their opposition to a panel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1989, according to a front-page report in The Villager’s March 2 issue that year.

“ ‘Just because the city is in a quandary and doesn’t know what to do about the crack epidemic,’ said Anthony Hoffman, Democratic Party district leader of the Village 61st District […], ‘doesn’t mean that the barge should be placed on the waterfront,’ ” read the article.

Villagers and their elected officials feared the economic impact of the barge, with then-City Councilmember Carol Greitzer warning that tourist guides would now have to announce “the questionable attraction of the river barges” to visitors, while state Senate Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein blasted the city’s piecemeal approach to prison overcrowding and warned of a dire future with prison boats lining the waterfront.

Another concern was that mooring the barge would create an obstacle in the effort toward creating a park and esplanade along the waterfront — where the Hudson River Park graces the shoreline today.

The plan to permanently moor the vessel in the Hudson for up to five years was ultimately squashed when the Army Corps, which has jurisdiction over the use of the nation’s waterways, denied the application and issued a one-year permit for the floating prison instead.

But the Venture, as well as its sister ship docked on the Lower East Side at Montgomery St., the Bibby Resolution, stayed on for several more years, until the city removed them under threat of federal lawsuits.

And the barges are still making waves today. At a recent candidates forum for the 65th state Assembly District special election, Democratic candidate Alice Cancel tried to score points by reminding the audience of her advocacy to get the Bibby Resolution booted from Lower Manhattan. She noted that Assemblymember Sheldon Silver had played a leading role in helping the community get rid of the barge.