Origins of the Essex County Jail

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 Prison Reform Movement

In 18th century colonial British America, criminal punishment was severe and included the death penalty, stocks, pillory, whipping, and branding. Imprisonment was reserved for debtors and those who could not pay jail fees. The English prison reformer John Howard (image) did much to  call attention to hygiene and food quality; he was responsible for getting prisoners solitary confinement as well as vocational and religious instruction; he fought to abolish jail fees in Britain. All these reforms were influential in the early US. Similarly, Pennsylvania eliminated corporal punishment and the death penalty (save for first-degree murder). Instead it focused on rehabilitation, and through isolation, penitence. The first “penance” prison was Eastern State Penitentiary, designed by John Haviland, the architect who designed Newark’s Essex County Jail.


“Haviland seemed to be the designer of the first prison that embodied the most enlightened and humane principles of the prison reform movement of his time.”

Albert TenEyck Gardner, Architect / Curator of the Met Museum

In 1816 the British architect John Haviland (1792–1852) came to the United States at the suggestion of John Quincy Adams. Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (planned and built from 1823–36), the largest architectural project yet undertaken in the United States, was hailed as revolutionary. His arrangement of cells radiating from a central core influenced prison design internationally. He was a founder of the American Institute of Architects. His many designs and renovations in Philadelphia also include the Old City Hall (1820), Independence Hall (1831-1833), and the Franklin Institute (1825). Deeply involved in the jail reform movement, he designed the Hall of Justice in New York City (The Tombs), the New Jersey State Penitentiary in Trenton, and Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, among many other prisons. In Newark, he built the Essex County Jail (1837) and County Courthouse (1838, replaced by Cass Gilbert’s courthouse in 1908).


Map of the City of Newark in 1836

Where is this jail located now in Newark? Click here to view location in Google Maps.

Without a single architectural typology, over the next few decades, the area around the jail stayed mostly industrial and added construction of a few residential blocks on the other side of the Morris Canal. By 1890, Newark’s population had tripled and the jail required additions.

Click image to zoom. From the Newark Public Library map collection.


A Essex County Jail After Newark’s incorporation in 1836, one of the first acts of city government was to construct a new prison according to prison reform philosophies. The jail’s surroundings were leather manufacturers and tanneries, which created a noxious environment.


B Essex County Courthouse Architect John Haviland designed a courthouse (1838), now demolished, and a county jail (1837).


C Former County Courthouse Dungeons The 1810 county courthouse was a three-story affair with courtrooms and county offices on the first two floors and the debtors’ prison on the top floor. Quarters for criminal offenders were built in the dark cellars and formed part of the foundations of the structure.


D Present-day Hahne’s Building. Site of jail exhibit.


Before Essex County built the old Essex County Jail in 1837, there was an even older dungeon for inmates. Essex County built its courthouse with a jail in the dark and damp basement dungeons at the location where Grace Church now stands. This structure burned down in 1835. This photo (taken 2014 by Myles Zhang) shows the jail dungeons that survived the fire. The foundations of Grace Church are built on this dungeon.


Click here to learn more about these dungeons.


John Haviland’s Other Works


Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (built 1825)


Eastern State Penitentiary (built 1829)


Eastern State Penitentiary (built 1829)


Eastern State Penitentiary (built 1829, drawn 1836)


Trenton State Prison (built 1835). From Historical American Building Survey.


New York Hall of Justice, “The Tombs” (built 1838). From New York Public Library.


Old Essex County Courthouse, built 1838. Circa 1900 photo before demolition. From collection of Zemin Zhang.


by Samuel Berg
Old Essex County Jail (built 1837). From the Berg photo collection in Newark Public Library.


Drawing of prison dormitory from the Wellcome Digital Collection
Painting of John Haviland from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Painting of John Howard from the National Portrait Gallery