Updated July 23, 2019 | By Matthew Christopher
The Old Essex County Jail in Newark, NJ, was originally built in 1837 and closed in 1970 when a new jail was completed. As the oldest surviving government building in the county and one of architect John Haviland’s finer works (he also designed Harrisburg State Hospital and Eastern State Penitentiary), the jail was added in 1991 to the historic register but by this point demolition by neglect has ruined much of the building.
The jail was constructed for $30,000 when a fire destroyed the county courthouse and the design incorporated garden paths, a greenhouse, and courtyards for well behaved inmates. Another feature of the grounds was the gallows in the yard used for hanging murderers. The main building was a square, two story structure with a cell block wing extending from it, but in 1890, 1895, 1904, and 1909 the prison was expanded. These expansion brought running water and toilets to the 300 cells now in the building.
After the jail was closed in 1970 the Essex County Narcotics Bureau moved in and used the building until a bitter dispute about the bureau’s location arose between the sheriff and the county executive. A judge ordered the evacuation of the building due to deteriorating structural conditions, and during the move hundreds of confidential documents were left behind from the DEA’s stay, including evidence, wiretapping transcripts, and case files. A Times article on the ensuing controversy reported that at one point the items left in the jail even included confiscated gambling machines, although no trace of them can be found today and several attempts were made by law enforcement officials to reclaim and destroy the records. Shortly after its closure, scenes for the Spike Lee film ‘Malcolm X’ were filmed there.
In a somewhat sardonic twist, after it was abandoned the Essex County Jail became a haven for homeless drug addicts, many of whom currently still live in the filthy cells. Garbage and drug paraphernalia litter the cell blocks, and at least two corpses of overdosed drug users have been recovered from the building. Massive floor collapses, caved in skylights and ceilings, and three story window frames that have fallen onto the cell blocks are evidence that despite the sturdy architecture, the building is in dire shape. A fire in 2001 also contributed to the ruinous state of the site. While plans to demolish the prison to build a 50 acre science and technology park were vetoed in 2010 because of the prison’s historic status, there is no real effort being made to protect the building from the elements, looters, vandals, people illegally dumping trash, or any of the other ravages that are clearly taking such a severe toll on it. There has been some talk of gutting the interior and turning it into a small power generating station, but currently the old Essex County Jail continues its decay unabated, populated by heroin and crack addicts sleeping in the rusty cells.