The Old Joliet Prison Is Back In Business — For Tourists | WBEZ
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The Old Joliet Prison Is Back In Business — For Tourists

After being abandoned for more than 15 years, the old Joliet prison will soon open its gates once again. But this time its stone walls will contain tourists, not inmates.

Volunteers plan to start offering prison tours to the general public later this summer. To get ready, here are a few things to know about Illinois’ most famous correctional facility.

Prisoners line up outside of their cells circa 1890. (Courtesy of the Joliet Area Historical Museum)

It was Illinois’ first major prison

The Joliet Prison  was built between 1857 and 1869. With high limestone walls broken up by imposing guard towers, the 15 acre compound looks like a medieval castle. At one time, it housed nearly 2,000 inmates.

Construction was motivated by the fact that Illinois’ only other prison at the time, located in downstate Alton, had only 24 cells and was badly overcrowded. It was also managed by a private contractor. Famous 19th-century activist Dorothea Dix personally lobbied Illinois legislators to build the Joliet prison.

A postcard from the prison from circa 1890. (Courtesy of Joliet Area Historical Museum)

‘Going to Joliet’ was a thing, and not a good one

The Joliet Correctional Facility operated for almost 150 years. During that time, “Joliet” was often used as shorthand to reference the prison.

“If you went anywhere in the country, I don’t care where you went, and you say you were from Joliet: ‘Oh, that’s where the prison is,” said Marilyn Brown, who has lived in Joliet since the 1930s.

Bob Dylan even name drops “Joliet prison” on the 1963 record “Percy’s song,” which tells the story of a fatal car crash that leads to a 99-year prison sentence.

'The Blues Brothers' opens on a sunrise over the walls of the old Joliet prison. (YouTube)

It’s the prison where John Belushi was locked up in The Blues Brothers

The Joliet prison is recognizable worldwide, thanks largely to the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.

In the opening scene of the movie — which was recently voted the best in Illinois history — Elwood Blues, played by Dan Aykroyd, picks up his brother Jake Blues, played by John Belushi, at the Joliet prison upon his release.


Joliet resident Kymn Donnelly said the town was excited to be on the national radar — even if it was for being home to a prison.

“We were in the theater [watching The Blues Brothers] and they announced the name ‘Joliet,’ and everybody yelled and screamed and applauded,” town resident Kymn Donnelly said.

Joliet Area Historical Museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte said there are no plans to completely restore the facility — although paint is peeling off of the walls and ceilings. Instead, the buildings will live as 'stabilized ruins.' (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

Since being abandoned in 2002, the prison has been explored, set on fire, and hosted a rave

The Joliet prison finally shut down in 2002. It was closed to save money, and most of the remaining inmates were transferred to the nearby Stateville Correctional Center, according to news reports from the time.

After that, the prison was abandoned without much clearing out. Instruments were left in the prison chapel and documents, machinery, and office supplies were also left behind. Over the last 15 years, it began to attract all types of thrill-seekers, as well as arsonists.

The facility is now filled with graffiti, including the room that once held washers. (Top) Other parts of the prison that were burned by arsonists are littered with things like charred phones (bottom left) and documents (bottom right). (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

YouTube videos documenting people breaking into the prison have garnered thousands of views. Last year, a teenager had to call the fire department for help when she accidentally locked herself in a cell.

Greg Peerbolte, the executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, said sneaking into the prison has been a common activity for local high school students. “I probably would have done it if I was that age, too, I guess," he said.

Mike Johnson is one of the volunteer tour guides at the old grounds. Those who take a tour with him get firsthand knowledge — Johnson worked at the prison for 1984 to 1998, first as a guard and later as a counselor. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

So far, rehabilitation has cost virtually nothing because the effort is entirely volunteer-run

Last December, the city of Joliet received permission from the state to start rehabilitating the old Joliet prison.

Since then, hundreds of volunteers have spent time cleaning and refurbishing their site

“The community response has been overwhelming,” Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said.

“Over the years, feelings [about the prison] have kind of evolved. I think back then a lot of people wanted to move away from the ‘prison city image.’ It’s kind of come full circle at this point.”

Miles Bryan is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow him @miles__bryan.

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