NEW York City is addressing a shortage of jail cells by floating some old tubs - and planning a gargantuan new one. Harking back to a centuries-old remedy, the city is using jail barges to hold hundreds of prisoners in ports around Manhattan. One re-outfitted British troop carrier is already doing duty with convicts, another will arrive shortly, and a third barge, the length of two football fields, is being custom-built in Louisiana.
The city is hurrying these alternatives, it says, to avoid having to release prisoners. The need for additional cells is largely due to accelerated drug arrests during the past year by the Tactical Narcotics Team, a city police unit aimed at the crack trade.
Last spring, city cells held about 15,000 city inmates, already there are more than 18,000; by summer that figure could top 21,000. ``Our population just keeps soaring,'' says Tom Antenen, of the New York City Correction Department.
The last time there were prisoners on boats, at least in the United States, was during the American Revolution, according to Jesse Lemisch, an American history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The British kept prisoners of war on rotting hulks in New York Harbor; 12,000 died in the squalor.
Today's models are more solid, and a lot more like floating buildings than ships. The Bibby Venture, which is moored off Brooklyn, and which the city plans to move to the west end of Greenwich Village, is four stories high and has 378 beds. A second barge, the Bibby Resolution, which the city bought last year for $20 million, will arrive from Europe in April. It will house 400 on the East River.
Yet to come is the city's own concoction, a massive, 800-bed barge looking like a futuristic office building. Price tag: at least $125 million, or $171,000 a bed. Officials say this is less than land-based cells. It should be moored off the South Bronx by 1990.
All of this is sparking a controversy - not so much over the idea of floating prisoners, nor over why there is such a growing need for cells. Instead, residents say it is a desecration of the waterfront, and worry that a nearby-moored jail will translate into increased crime. They say prisoners from Bibby Venture might remain in the neighborhood upon release.
Certainly, no community seems eager to play host to lockups, buoyant or otherwise. ``Nobody wants them anywhere,'' says Tom Kelly, spokesman for Mayor Edward Koch. But he says the city has neither the land nor the time to build jails on solid ground. ``This was the quickest and safest way to do it.''
Critics see the move as exploitation of a natural resource.
``The waterfront is seen as the pioneers saw the untamed West,'' says City Councilwoman Carol Greitzer, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the proposed barge siting. It is near her district that the Bibby Venture would be docked. She says residents were promised a scenic esplanade as part of more public access to the waterfront. Instead, in addition to the barge, there are plans for an incinerator and floating bus depot.
Marcy Benstock, director of the Clean Air Campaign, a community group opposing the barge siting, says she fears this could be part of a trend of cities encroaching on wetlands and waterways. ``Non-water-dependent structures should be put on land if possible.'' She says New York City is considering floating homeless shelters. ``It's environmentally damaging, and encourages cities to use these areas for dumping grounds for their problems instead of addressing them.''
``It says a lot about society's reluctance to pay for the `get tough on crime' attitude that seems to permeate our society,'' comments H.R. DeLucca, a former New York State deputy superintendent of corrections, now a professor of corrections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Councilwoman Greitzer, however, worries about the negative impression all of the flotsam and jetsam will make on tourists - who are rapidly becoming New York's No. 1 source of income. As for the city's popular sightseeing boat trips, ``We don't have castles on the Rhine. They'll be going around Manhattan pointing out prison barges.''