The US Coast Guard Wants Its Own Prison Ship to Hold Suspected Drug Smugglers

The novel, but almost certainly controversial plan would free up the service's cutters for more important missions.

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The U.S. Coast Guard’s top officer says his service doesn’t have any good ways to temporarily hold the drug traffickers and other smugglers it arrests at sea until it can get them to detention centers ashore. So, Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft is looking for a solution, including one particularly novel and likely controversial idea: hire contractors to operate a dedicated prison ship.

Zukunft disclosed that he was considering the plan in an interview with Military.com in December 2017 that the outlet published on Jan. 16, 2018. At the time, the specifics of the proposal seemed to be in the formative stage, with the admiral saying his service might ask for the Pentagon to manage such a vessel or do so by way of U.S. Southern Command, which is in charge of American military operations across Latin America and the Caribbean. There were no formal requirements for the ship itself, either, but it was clear the Coast Guard felt the existing situation was increasingly untenable.

“We're spending about a third of our ship time right now moving these detainees from one ship to another to provide them the best creature comforts at sea until we can land them in Panama, which is the only country right now that will accept detainees for further transport back to the United States,” Zukunft told Military.com. A dedicated prison ship “might have better accommodations than we have on ships with flight decks and helicopter hangars to at least get people out of the elements,” he added.

The main logistical issue appears to be a combination of how the United States processes individuals the Coast Guard detains and that traffickers have steadily shifted from smuggling drugs and other illicit cargoes through the Caribbean to running operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The latter area is far less congested, giving criminals more room to maneuver and avoid detection.

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A US Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutter sails near a captured low profile vessel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean belonging to suspected drug smugglers in October 2017.

As Zukunft noted, the only third party country where the Coast Guard can deposit individuals it detains in the Pacific is Panama. Other assets would then move them to the United States for prosecution in civilian courts. Otherwise, his cutters have to sail through the Panama Canal to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In 2017, the service arrested more than 700 suspected smugglers.

A prison ship could provide a more purposeful method of transporting detainees from one point to another and streamline the process as a whole. Zukunft told Military.com that one possible starting place would be an offshore or platform supply vessel, a type of vessel that normally supports off-shore oil and gas operations. This would make sense, since these ships are already configured to carry passengers to and from locations at sea.

Below is a video describing the more typical missions of offshore supply vessels:

A civilian operator would have to modify those accommodations for prisoners, which would likely include added precautions to prevent their escape and closed circuit monitoring systems throughout the ship. Zukunft said that Coast Guard law enforcement augmenteess, which the service already deploys on board U.S. Navy ships for counter-drug missions, would actually be in charge of this improvised afloat detention facility.

Another possibility might be to refurbish an appropriately sized ship from the U.S. Navy’s mothballed reserve fleets, which include a variety of older logistics vessels. A contract civilian or hybrid civilian-military crew could then operate the reactivated vessel.

Neither option would necessarily be unprecedented. The U.S. military routinely hires private companies to provide specialized ships for logistics and training missions, as well as actual military operations overseas. Military Sealift Command already uses crews made up of uniformed personnel and merchant mariners to operate its own logistics and special purpose fleets. The U.S. Navy also recently considered reactivating Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates with limited mission systems for counter-drug missions in particular.

Prison ships or the use of mothballed hulls or barges to house prisoners are hardly new ideas, either. New York City Department of Correction operates the largest such floating facility in the United States, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a barge on Long Island Sound that operates in conjunction with the Rikers Island jail. Having a roving afloat jail would be a unique take on the concept, though.

Reivax via Wikimedia

The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center barge.

But as Zukunft noted, having the floating jail would also free up his service’s already limited resources from prisoner transport duties, which can only get in the way of important law enforcement and life-saving missions. The Coast Guard's area command for the entire Pacific Ocean, which oversees operations around Alaska and American possessions in the Western Pacific and the service’s activities in Japan and Singapore, has some 15 high and medium endurance cutters in total.

Just three of these are the more modern Legend-class National Security Cutters, which began primarily replacing the 1960s-era Hamilton-class in 2008. There are still four Hamiltons on active duty, though, the youngest of which has been in service since 1972.

The Coast Guard itself occupies a curious position of being a uniformed military service within the Department of Homeland Security, having previously been part of the Department of the Treasury and then the Department of Transportation. This bureaucratic limbo has long translated into budget difficulties. It helps explain why Zukunft is already thinking he might have to beg the Pentagon for help in implementing his plan.

Even if the U.S. military does come through with the ship, the plan might prove too legally complicated and otherwise controversial to work, though. The Coast Guard Commandant said he was looking seriously at the idea in part because of an exposé The New York Times published in November 2017 that detailed squalid conditions for detainees in transit.

“Go below deck and look at where my crew is berthing,” Zukunft complained to Military.com, referring to the state of his service’s ships in general. “The living conditions in any prison system in the United States [are] better than the berthing areas in my 52-year-old ships. We are operating out of prisons.”

But more importantly, per The Times report, the Coast Guard already has to routinely secure waivers from federal judges extending the time it can hold detainees without charge. This in turn led one anonymous former lawyer for the service to describe cutters as “floating Guantanamos,” a reference to the U.S. military’s extremely controversial terrorist detention facility attached to the U.S. Navy’s base in Cuba.

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The USCGC Midgett, the youngest of its remaining Hamilton-class cutters.

The Coast Guard has secured those legal opinions based on the argument that it lacks the means to get alleged criminals into a court room any faster. It might have trouble making that case if it decides to manage a dedicated prison ship with the stated purpose of keeping detainees in lockup for protracted periods of time.

This in turn could also open up the service to costly legal action from civil rights groups and other activist organizations. If nothing else, the idea of the U.S. government effectively running a floating jail in international waters could easily prove to be an oversight and public relations nightmare.

“We can't lose sight of the fact that these individuals who were detained, they're peddling poison,” Zukunft stressed to Military.com. “These aren't just down-on-their-luck fishermen; they have a choice. You can either fish, or you can be a criminal.”

Still, the commandant may find support for his plan among President Donald Trump and his administration, which has taken a hard line stance toward immigration and border security. Trump himself has often cited illegal drugs as an especially important reason for those revised policies. 

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President Donald Trump, along with First Lady Melania Trump, left, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, right, meets with members of the US Coast Guard in September 2017.

The current ad hoc practice of dispatching the Coast Guard’s limited number of cutters to move prisoners around rather than perform their primary missions seems unsustainable in the long run, though. That Zukunft is considering the idea a prison ship at all suggests he might see it as among the least worst option for freeing up the service’s personnel for their core missions of protecting America’s borders, guarding its maritime interests, and being on call to save lives at sea.    

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com