Descent into Rust
Essex County Penitentiary
Located in Caldwell, NJ
Photo © 2007 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Essex County Penitentiary History
New Jersey's Essex County had operated a prison in Newark since 1837, but the need for a large state penitentiary arose a few decades later. Newark was a bustling city and not the optimal place for long-term inmates, so a rural site on the Verona-Caldwell border was chosen for the new complex. Architect Paul Botticer designed the original 1872 Italianate Victorian structure, which was made of locally quarried brownstone, chiseled by hand. This new Essex County Penitentiary was often referred to as ESCOPEN, and not unlike rural state-run psychiatric hospitals, it was almost self-sufficient by generating power through a coal-fed power plant, and supplying food from worked farms and orchards. These apple and peach trees once lined Elm Road, along with a piggery and chicken coop, maintained by inmates and staff.
Many additions to the campus were constructed over the years; an auditorium/cafeteria was added to the original brownstone building in 1882 and an infirmary in the 1890s. A women's building was constructed in 1918, and in the 1930s the largest addition took place with a massive concrete building, known as the New Wing. It featured state of the art cell doors that could be controlled electronically, as well as a mess hall with shotgun ports and tear gas modules that could be dropped from a control room in case of a riot.
Despite these additions, the penitentiary still faced overcrowding problems. Prisoners slept in cots outside the crammed cells, and trailers were moved onto the property for additional space. To add the problem, the buildings became quickly antiquated; by the 1980s, the cell block tiers in the New Wing were condemned, only seeing about 40 years of service. The lower floors of the building were scarcely used until it was finally shuttered in 1995.
In the 1970s, the campus was named the Essex County Correction Center, and housed sentenced inmates; many moved to a new facility in Newark that replaced the old county jail. In the 1980s the county's safety entities merged and the old penitentiary became known as the Essex County Jail Annex, and mostly served as an overflow facility for the one in Newark. Many prisoners who were awaiting sentencing, and reportedly more violent, resided at the Caldwell complex until it closed in 2004.
Demolition of the satellite buildings began in 2007, and by 2011, all structures were razed despite efforts from the North Caldwell Historical Society to rehabilitate the central tower. Although some of the original wood was re-purposed, the hand-cut chiseled brownstone blocks (some measuring a massive 10x3 feet) were ground up and carted to a landfill. The property is now residential housing.