The old Essex County Jail, the oldest government building in Newark, reflects Newark’s history: from its beginnings as a small town to its rise as an industrial metropolis and its economic decline after the 1967 Rebellion. The building that was the jail has sat abandoned for over forty years. This exhibition of the past and present life of the old Essex County Jail proposes various methods of transforming this place of historic confinement into a future site of memory and growth.
Why should we preserve and remember a jail? The United States now holds more prisoners than any other nation. These individuals are disproportionately people of color, and many face great challenges escaping the pipeline that lands, and returns, them there. Prison reform, particularly important to Newark, must take into account the documented past as a reminder to future generations of the danger of repeating prison history.
In the 1830s, prison life was brutal. The young, old, female, male, and even children were confined several to a cell in appalling conditions. In the view of prison reformers, this system made inmates worse instead of reforming them into better citizens. Beginning in England, such reformers as John Howard proposed a new system based around the three goals of “silence, supervision, and security.” Philosophers, engineers, and reformers introduced new prison designs based on the belief that natural light and space for reflection could transform prisons into places of reform.
The Bill of Rights prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the 1800s, the architects and administrators of the Essex County Jail confined and supervised individuals who were neither to be tortured nor deprived of their legal rights. Rather, Newark’s government furnished the Jail with running water, sanitation, electricity, and heat at a time when few Newarkers on the outside enjoyed these amenities. Haviland’s jails had indoor plumbing and sanitation before the White House did. Early adoption of technology was common in public buildings such as libraries and prisons. For example, the old Essex County Jail had glass catwalks and self-supporting modular steel cells in the East Wing. The walls of the West Wing were lined with an early version of a radiant-heat pipe system. The West Wing’s masonry cells could be locked with levers.
As Newark grew from a small town into a large metropolis, the city jail grew alongside and adapted. From the 1890s to the 1930s, new buildings and facilities were gradually added, including a hospital, powerhouse, laundry, and space for prisoners to pass the time. Most individuals here were arrested for petty crimes, such as drunkenness, prostitution, and loitering. Unlike today, they served short sentences before rejoining the community. For most of the jail’s lifespan, the warden and his family were required to live and work alongside the prisoners. This state of affairs changed in the late 20th century as a different paradigm in the justice system emerged and stretched this jail, along with all others around the country, beyond capacity.
In Spring 2018, architects Belmont Freeman and Bryony Roberts led a Studio II class as part of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation. Eleven students documented and explored the historic context, condition, and importance of old Essex County Jail, and then built upon this analysis to form preservation and memorialization strategies. Each student developed a proposal through an architectural design or interpretive design framework.
The Architectural design group looked at options for new programming and building on the site. Students developed detailed proposals for new construction for institutional reuse like a technology center or a charter school hub, and also explored housing options.
The interpretive design group focused on developing proposals for editing and transforming the structure in order to communicate its architectural and social history. Students chose to develop projects centered on incarceration history, materials and technology, and community hubs.
Explore the old Essex County Jail as told by former inmates, guards, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
Archival materials about the jail, historic images, and high resolution current site photos are all online. View and download these resources from our database.