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Abandoned

Doing Time in the Old Essex County Jail

The Old Essex County Jail (Prints Available)

Many of the most remarkable abandoned buildings loom over their surroundings and dominate the landscape, but Newark’s Old Essex County Jail is barely there. Much of the structure is walled off behind a twelve foot barrier, and all that rises above it is difficult to discern through the overgrowth. On the grounds, the building remains obfuscated, half in ruins and only visible in parts, with an absence of any unifying architectural feature.  Inside, its footprint is no less disorienting, resulting from a series of haphazard additions made at the turn of the 20th century as the jail’s population increased. Unlike the comforting symmetry of asylum wards, the whole disordered mass seems to be governed by a bizarre dream logic, made all the more sinister by the fact that you can’t look the building in the face.

Doorway to the office wing

Doorway to the office wing

The jail is known as a haven for “crackheads,” and it’s absolutely filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia, some old, some new. When I first visited a couple of years ago, we had only been inside for a few minutes when the place started coming to life around us, first clanks and creaks, then voices and shadowy figures walking by in the hallways. It wasn’t my decision to leave that day before we came face to face with anyone, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. As sympathetic as I felt toward these unfortunates, I figured that anyone voluntarily residing in an abandoned prison cell was in a desperate situation with very little to lose.

In some areas, bars had been removed by scrappers.

In some areas, bars had been removed by scrappers.

A shaft between prison blocks held a matrix of toilets, one for each cell.

A shaft between prison blocks held a matrix of toilets, one for each cell.

The original building was constructed in 1837 and planned according to the “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration, which was characterized by solitary confinement and an emphasis on rehabilitation over manual labor and corporal punishment. It’s one of the lesser works of the distinguished British architect John Haviland, who is better known for the revolutionary design of Eastern State Penitentiary. Through the early 1900s the Essex County Jail expanded to a capacity of 300. It was replaced by a new facility in 1970 and subsequently occupied by the county’s Bureau of Narcotics until 1989, when the building was deemed unsafe. In 2001, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the structure. Reports of the place being inhabited by the homeless go back to the 1990s.

Two years after my first trip to the Essex County Jail, I came back with the resolve to see things through and a new exploring buddy. It had rained overnight and the constant dripping sounded just like footsteps, but otherwise the place seemed deserted. Objects left behind by recent inhabitants overshadowed any artifacts from the building’s early history, with garbage middens clustered in almost every cell. An hour or so in, I had my first anticlimactic encounter with a squatter, who greeted me politely and went about his business. Over the course of the morning, two others walked past me without saying a word. As scary as the place was, there were no monsters or maniacs living here, just a few people looking for a place to be left alone, finding a bleak kind of freedom in the most unlikely of places.

Rickety staircases led up through four stories of cells.

Rickety staircases led up through four stories of cells.

The stench of human waste emanated from a few of the rooms.

The stench of human waste emanated from a few of the rooms.

It was unnerving to wander these rows, not knowing when you might find someone inside.

It was unnerving to wander these rows, not knowing when you might find someone inside.

Designed for a single occupant, each cell held a narrow bed and a toilet.

Designed for a single occupant, each cell held a narrow bed and a toilet.

Approaching an empty cell.

Approaching an empty cell.

An ornate stairway near the staff entrance differed from the stark verticals of the prison interior.

An ornate stairway near the staff entrance differed from the stark verticals of the prison interior.


Discussion

12 thoughts on “Doing Time in the Old Essex County Jail

  1. Thank you so much for bringing this place to our viewing. You don’t see much about it. You make it sound like you need a GPS or at least a map to get around in it. That would add to the creep factor. Really nice views your were able to capture. Kinda sad to see it past the point of no return. Thank you again.

    Like

    Posted by Gwen Edgett | 6-22-15., 12:27 pm
  2. Your photos of Essex County jail are amazing. What ISO did you use? Did you use only available light as it appears? I give you props for your courage. I am truly inspired as a photographer.
    Thanks!
    Andi Nicole

    Like

    Posted by andi | 6-22-15., 12:31 pm
    • Hey Andi, thank you! I shoot at ISO 160 unless it’s super dark, then I might bump it up to 640. Most important tool is a tripod to do long exposures, it’s all natural light with some adjustments in Lightroom/Photoshop.

      Like

      Posted by Will Ellis | 6-22-15., 12:43 pm
  3. Is it possible to get some abandoned property in NY?

    Regards Mohan Singh

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    Posted by mohansingh.sudan@gmail.com | 6-22-15., 2:58 pm
  4. Really enjoyed this post. For a bit it reminded me of Eastern State Penn and then you mentioned it a little farther in the read. Wonderful pics!

    Like

    Posted by jebusandandrea | 6-22-15., 3:26 pm
  5. beautiful pictures

    Like

    Posted by Bryan Ortiz | 6-22-15., 5:04 pm
  6. Thanks Will, always worth the wait for your newest post. Great photos…I can only imagine how eerie (and scary) it would be to wander through this site. Many thanks.

    Like

    Posted by Frank Brennan | 6-22-15., 7:04 pm
  7. Wonderful images and excellent overview! I’m really enjoying your book! And working on my photos from Dead Horse Bay! Robin aka Gotham Girl

    Like

    Posted by gotham girl | 6-22-15., 8:03 pm
  8. I am such a fan, way out here in Los Angeles! And these photos are just beautiful, if I might use that word to describe something so bleak and sad. If ever in LA, you must visit the old LA County Hospital, only partially abandoned, but wow!

    Like

    Posted by Pam | 6-23-15., 12:04 pm
  9. Amazing places and amazing pictures 🙂 !!!!

    Like

    Posted by Afrikaaaaaa | 7-1-15., 8:02 pm
  10. Your work is amazing. I wish I could be part of adventures like this. I find so much peace in going to abandoned locations. Its so beautiful. I’m sure many have asked, but if I could ever tag along- I would be ridiculously grateful.

    Like

    Posted by Gina | 9-24-15., 1:01 pm

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Balanced Rock, Big Bend National Park.
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