Old Essex County Jail

Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!

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Old Essex County Jail
Unexpected Shelter

The Newark Street Jail, now known as the Old Essex County Jail, was constructed in 1837 in Newark, New Jersey. The architect envisioned a two-story square building attached to a cell block wing. It was crafted from brownstone and brick, with garden paths, courtyards, and a greenhouse for well-behaved inmates. In the 1890s, the jail was expanded to include over 300 cells and gained new buildings, technological improvements, and running water. Thick glass panes were installed as flooring in the narrow catwalks that lined the cell blocks. Guards patrolling the aisles could keep an eye out above and below for trouble. The Old Essex County Jail was a good facility, but in 1970, a new jail was constructed and the inmates were moved out. It was briefly occupied by the Essex County Narcotics Bureau, but they left in 1989.

Now walking through the decaying halls of the old jail, you won’t get the pleasure of seeing both above and below you. The glass panes of the catwalks are caked in grime and garbage. The towering walls of iron are thickly coated with red-brown rust. Some metal, like in the shower stalls, is all but disintegrated. In some rooms, you find piles of confidential reports and photographs in the filth, left behind by the Essex County Narcotics Bureau. The scent of a rotting building is heavy, metallic, and overwhelming. Rain drips in from a crumbling roof and skylights long gone. The building is consumed by cold air. Your footsteps echo in the corridors, but when you think you are alone, you hear something echoing back: a sound you didn’t make.

The farther into the jail you move, the more clearly you can hear the echoes of chattering and something shuffling through the garbage. The sound comes from one of the cells down the block. You approach and peer into the rusted corpse of a cell to find a quivering man frightened by your sudden appearance. He’s nervous and jumpy until you assure him you’re not there to harm him. Then he’s willing to talk. He is one of about ten other homeless people living in the jail at the moment. Sometimes there are more. There are drug addicts, squatters, schizophrenics, runaways; pretty much anyone who can find comfort in the privacy of a cold, damp place like an abandoned prison.

Though you may think the cells are too derelict and disgusting to find comfortable, you travel farther into the building. The people who consider the cells a longer-term home have covered the rusted iron bars with boards or cloth, improving privacy. The catwalks are narrow, so you must tread rather close to these people’s homes. If you are polite, you are not bothered, but if you get rude, you are only a shove away from the edge of the catwalk and a perilous fall to the debris-strewn floor below.

Old Essex County Jail in Play

At the table, the Old Essex County Jail could be the home of someone your PCs are trying to find. They would have to cautiously traverse the catwalks and peek into cells to see if they’ve found the right place. Hopefully they don’t offend anyone enough to get pushed down to the lower levels. Maybe while the party is there, they discover some important documents left behind by the Narcotics Bureau, perhaps information on a specific NPC or crime in which the PCs are interested. Or maybe while they are there, they discover a monster has moved into the prison, and is preying upon residents who have nowhere else to go. Your PCs could be heroes to the residents if they were to confront the creature in its lair. A reputation for defending the homeless could help investigator-type PCs. Easily overlooked, the homeless are present in places others aren’t, see things others don’t. A party friendly with the local homeless community could find them to be a great source of information.

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! It’s three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

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