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.
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.
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.