The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Friday, September 16, 1994             TAG: 9409160539
SECTION: LOCAL                    PAGE: B1   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: SOUTH BRONX, N.Y.                  LENGTH: Long  :  110 lines


Doing time on this city's 47,000-ton floating prison is not exactly a vacation cruise, but inmates could do worse.

On Thursday, Norfolk city officials got a glimpse of what could be in the city's future when they walked the long, gray gangplank into New York's five-story jail barge, the Vernon C. Bain.

From the outside, the blue-and-gray steel Bain looks foreboding. Surrounded on one side by fencing topped with razor wire and on three others by the polluted East River, the barge houses up to 800 prisoners.

But inside is a different story. Inmates sleep in large, airy dorms. A huge kitchen holds two walk-in microwave ovens, racks of homemade prison bread and three freezers for the culinary requirements of kosher, Muslim, and other inmate diners. A barbershop has six chairs, all requiring appointments.

Prisoners enjoy a law library as large as the Norfolk commonwealth's attorney's, a chapel, classroom, ship's store, weight room, music room with acoustic wall tiles, and indoor and outdoor basketball courts.

It's easy to see why some inmates sued the federal government to return to the Bain when they were transferred to other prisons.

It's easy to see why the Bain - New York's newest and most expensive prison - came in $35 million over budget.

On Thursday, Norfolk Sheriff Robert McCabe, shipyard representatives and city and state officials took the cook's tour. Norfolk was ordered last month by the U.S. Justice Department to find a solution to its overcrowded jail, built to hold 579 inmates but housing 1,305 on Wednesday. Justice officials told McCabe to get the inmate population down to 750 in six months.

Jail barges are one solution being considered by McCabe, and New York is apparently the only locale in the nation to house prisoners on them. This week, Norshipco and Colonna's Shipyard Inc. announced plans to design, build and market the ``floating detention centers.''

By day's end Thursday, McCabe and shipyard officials still supported the barges. But the Bain wasn't going to be the prototype.

``This is an example of how not to build one,'' McCabe said. ``Still, barges are something we might build down the road . . .''

Doug Forrest, Colonna's vice president and spokesman for the project, said the cost of Norfolk barges would be a quarter of the Bain's $161 million price tag.

Councilman W. Randy Wright said two factors determine the idea's future - price, and where a barge would be docked.

Inmate Daryl Pretty, 28, loves his berth on the Bain. ``It's cleaner than any other jail in the city,'' said Pretty, who has 17 days left on a drug charge. Single cells overlook the water. ``It's not so depressing here.''

But New York's experience with its jailhouse fleet has been a checkered one filled with regulatory, financial and public relations woes.

The city's first two barges - the Bibby Venture and Bibby Resolution - were closed in 1992 when they ran afoul of federal authorities.

The same year, the Bain opened in the South Bronx. Although in compliance with federal regulations, the vessel opened 18 months behind schedule and soon became New York's most expensive jail.

Norfolk officials believe they can circumvent many of New York's maritime woes by learning from that city's mistakes. Shipyard officials said they would stay in close touch with corrections and Coast Guard officials during construction to prevent the regulatory violations that plagued the Bain.

Since the Bain is not permanently moored to the shore, the Coast Guard requires authorities to staff the Bain with a Coast Guard-licensed mate, engineer and oiler 24 hours a day. This adds an additional $650,000 to the yearly operating budget, New York officials said.

In Norfolk, a prison barge would be permanently moored and would not need a maritime crew, McCabe said.

The Big Apple's experience with corrections-based cruises began in the late 1980s. City officials acquired two troop carriers formerly used in the Falklands war from Bibby Freighters of Liverpool, England. These were refitted into prisons.

Then-Mayor Edward Koch said that the barges were a quick and temporary fix to jail overcrowding. Since 1977, the city has operated under a federal court order setting population on its prisons and jails.

The Bibby barges were docked in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, but neighbors hated them. Officials discovered they had to hire more guards because of their maze-like layout. The Army Corps of Engineers deemed the barges an impediment to navigation and threatened to sue if they were not removed from the harbor.

In 1992, the city closed the Bibby barges to head off the federal lawsuits but discovered they cost more than $1 million a year to maintain. Then, this July, the two barges were sold for $1.8 million.

The Bain has survived where the other two failed - but not without suffering some broadsides. From the beginning, there were problems with unanticipated design and construction problems.

Built at a shipyard on the Mississippi River near New Orleans, the flat-bottomed Bain was towed 1,800 nautical miles to its berth across from Riker's Island.

Like the Bibby barges, the Bain was a product of the Koch administration. In 1989, the city negotiated a $125.6 million contract with a 1990 delivery date. But the original contract specifications failed to comply with fire and Coast Guard safety codes, and a new contract was renegotiated - raising the price tag to $156.4 million.

The cost overruns continued. The ventilation system was too noisy and had to be fixed.

An additional $9 million was spent to prepare a dock site, raising the total to $170 million when the Bain was finally moored in January 1992. ILLUSTRATION: Floating an idea to ease crowding

[Color Photo] PAUL AIKEN/Staff

Norfolk Sheriff Robert McCabe, right, talks to Warden Brian Conroy

outside New York's most expensive jail, the barge Vernon C. Bain.

The barge floats on the East River.