The Old Essex County Jail in Newark, NJ Abandoned

Built in 1837, the Old Essex County Jail in Newark, New Jersey, was shut down in 1970 to make room for a new jail. Designed by architect John Haviland, who also created Harrisburg State Hospital and Eastern State Penitentiary, the jail is the oldest government building still standing in the county. It was added to the historic register in 1991, but by then, neglectful demolition had destroyed a large portion of the structure.

After a fire destroyed the county courthouse, a $30,000 jail was built with garden pathways, a greenhouse, and courtyards for well-behaved prisoners. The gallows in the yard, which were used to hang murderers, was another aspect of the property. The original prison was a square, two-story building with a wing dedicated to cell blocks that extended from it. However, the prison was expanded in 1890, 1895, 1904, and 1909. The 300 cells in the building now have running water and toilets thanks to these expansions.

Following the closure of the jail in 1970, the Essex County Narcotics Bureau took up residence in the facility. However, a fierce argument erupted between the county executive and the sheriff regarding the bureau’s location. Due to the building’s failing structural problems, a judge ordered its evacuation. Hundreds of sensitive papers from the DEA’s stay, including case files, transcripts from eavesdropping, and evidence, were lost in the process of moving. At one point, confiscated gambling machines were among the goods left in the jail, according to a Times piece on the ensuing scandal. Despite multiple attempts by law enforcement personnel to retrieve and destroy the records, no evidence of the machines can be discovered today.

In a rather ironic turn of events, the Essex County Jail was abandoned and turned into a sanctuary for homeless drug addicts, many of whom are still residing in the dingy cells today. Two drug users’ bodies have been found within the structure, and the cell blocks are littered in trash and drug paraphernalia. The building is in terrible shape despite its robust architecture, as seen by massive floor collapses, caved in skylights and ceilings, and three story window frames that have fallen onto the cell blocks. The site’s dilapidated condition was further exacerbated by a fire in 2001.

Plans to demolish the prison and construct a 50-acre science and technology park were vetoed in 2010 due to the prison’s historic status; however, despite the obvious damage being done to the building, little is being done to protect it from the elements, looters, vandals, illegal trash dumping, or other mishaps. Though there have been discussions about demolishing the interior and converting it into a small power plant, the old Essex County Jail is still decaying and is home to crack and heroin addicts who sleep in the corroded cells.

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