A Home for the Homeless
Old Essex County Jail
Located in Newark, NJ
Photo © 2004 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Old Essex County Jail History
In 1837, the Newark Street Jail was constructed to house criminals from the Essex County, New Jersey, at a cost of $30,000. It replaced the prison at the county courthouse, which burned completely in 1835. The architect John Haviland, designer of the state prison in Trenton, envisioned a two-story square building attached to a cell block wing, crafted from brownstone and brick. Garden paths, courtyards, and a greenhouse were included for the better-behaved inmates to work at and enjoy.
In the 1890s, the facility was expanded with new buildings as well as additions to the main structure; technological improvements included running water and sewerage. The name of the facility was changed to the Essex County Jail, and eventually exapnded to include over 300 cells. An interesting (but hard to see) feature at this facility are the thick glass panes installed as flooring for the narrow catwalks that line the cell blocks; designed so guards could keep an eye out above and below. Although covered with years of grime and garbage, they are still mostly intact and sturdy.
When the new Essex County Jail was constructed in 1970, the inmates were moved out of the building; it was briefly occupied by the Essex County Narcotics Bureau after then. The purpose of utilizing this building was to separate the squad from the courthouse, so confidential informants wouldn't be "paraded" before the people going to court. Some of the cells were used as storage rooms to hold evidence as well. In 1989, the bureau vacated the building for good, but also left piles of confidential reports and photographs behind. These documents rotting underneath the garbage from the many squatters living inside the derelict cells, stirred controversey in a 1998 NY Times article.
The facility is the oldest standing government building in the City of Newark, and although it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, no efforts have been made to preserve it. It was used as a filming location for scenes in Spike Lee's movie "Malcom X" in 1992.
Much of this history was found at New Jersey History's Mysteries.