Opened in 1858, just six years after the incorporation of the City of Joliet, the Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet, now known simply as the “Old Joliet Prison,” has, for better or worse, been synonymous with the City of Joliet for nearly its entire history. The Joliet Prison, with its iconic castellated Gothic architecture, was designed by Chicago’s earliest architect W.W. Boyington, who also designed the Chicago Water Tower. The use of Joliet limestone was a trademark of Boyington’s designs and this locally quarried stone was used to erect structures all around the country. The prison in Joliet replaced the first state penitentiary in Alton, built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in 1831. The privately-managed prison quickly degraded into a state of horrendous conditions. Noted reformer Dorothea Dix personally petitioned the Illinois General Assembly to construct a new penitentiary after inspection the Alton prison in 1847.
While action from the state legislature and some construction occurred in prior years, May 22, 1858, marks the “beginning” of the Joliet Prison when 53 inmates arrived at a small structure, which still stands, to begin the work of constructing the larger prison around themselves. This included the quarrying of the limestone from two adjacent quarries.
Upon its opening, the Chicago Tribune declared glowingly, “We came away fully impressed with the belief that the important trusts at Joliet are in good hands, that there is growing a state work, which will be for long years to come the pride of her citizens.” The image of the Joliet Prison, however, quickly changed. By 1878, the prison was filled well over capacity with nearly 2,000 inmates. Reports of unsanitary and dangerous conditions emerged and by 1905, calls for the closure of the “old prison” were made. The 1926 construction of Stateville Penitentiary in what is now Crest Hill was intended to close the prison, but it continued to house offenders until 2002, when it was finally closed by Governor George Ryan.
The prison is probably best known today for its most popular, albeit fictional inmate – “Joliet Jake” Blues from the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” Since then, the prison has made a number of appearances in films and in television, including as the character of “Fox River State Penitentiary” in the critically acclaimed Fox series “Prison Break,” and in smaller scenes in “Derailed,” “Let’s Go to Prison” and recently, “Empire.”
Sadly, despite this interest from Hollywood, the prison remained closed, and in addition to damage from the elements, was subject to rampant vandalism, including several acts of arson. Attempts were made to find suitable options for reuse, including tourism, by the Collins Street Task Force of concerned public and private leaders, but these efforts were stalled by the Great Recession of 2008. Continued vandalism and destruction of the site led Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk to personally petition the state government to allow the City of Joliet to take control of the property in December of 2017.
Since then, the city looked to the Joliet Area Historical Museum to take a leadership role in operating tours at the site. In partnership with the city, the museum identified a number of community partners to form a public/private partnership entity, The Old Joliet Prison Preservation Coalition. To date, the project has been met with an enthusiastic response from the community of Joliet, culminating in over 6,500 volunteers hours, $1 million in in-kind labor and donations and nearly $200,000 in funds raised to benefit the site.
True to its historic legacy, the Old Joliet Prison now takes its rightful place as an authentic, unique asset which is inextricably linked the history of the City of Joliet, and will continue to draw interest from visitors all around the world.