All images coutesy Matthew Christopher
There’s something so unsettling yet inexplicably intriguing about abandoned ruins, but we’re choosing not to question it. Matthew Christopher, founder of Abandoned America and author of the book Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences, has taken us just across the river to New Jersey, where the site of the former Essex County Jail Annex still remains today near Newark.
The complex, which was constructed in 1873 to solve that familiar old problem of overcrowding in Newark’s jails, has a flat, grim aesthetic couldn’t be any more fitting for jail. Additions to its grounds came almost immediately, with an added auditorium, hospital, cafeteria, powerhouse, and a women’s building.
New York and New Jersey’s crime spike of the 1920s caused even more expansions, until the prison was one of the largest in the 1930s onward. After a time, trailers were set up behind the buildings to accommodate even more inmates. Christopher’s photos show a gray, utilitarian machine designed to suppress and restrain. Especially telling are the shotgun posts and the tear gas modules built into the ceiling of the mess hall.
Declining numbers due to the growth of nearby prisons caused much of the jail to fall into disrepair. The original building built back in the 1870s was vacated near around 1970 and used as an administrative building. At the end of the 20th century, officials at Essex County Jail decided to shut the place down for good. Any remaining inmates were moved to nearby jails and the buildings were left to decay in silence.
After several vandalism incidents caused by teenagers and thrill-seekers entering the grounds, Essex County began demolishing the historic buildings. Today, not much of the oldest buildings remain, with most of the grounds converted into residential buildings or offices. What little does remain, however, is only a small reminder of the hundreds of prisoners who passed through its walls and the bleakness of their experiences there.
Next read about Abandoned America’s last tour of Pilgrim State Hospital. Get in touch with the author @jinwoochong.