Joliet’s patience with state of ‘Blues Brothers’ prison is waning
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org July 26, 2013 11:24PM
This is what's left of the building inside the Old Joliet Prison. The fire started at 3:05am located at 1125 Collins St. Joliet,Illinois on Thursday, July 25, 2013. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 30, 2013 6:36AM
The fire at the old Joliet prison this week could spark efforts to reclaim and redevelop the aging structure. Or it could be the first of many fires and other problems to come at a prison that the state of Illinois closed 11 years ago and since has left to deteriorate.
“We want them to take responsibility for it,” said Amy Sanchez, of the Collins Street Neighborhood Council.
Sanchez said residents and business people in the area have become frustrated with the state’s neglect of the prison even as local property owners try to improve the neighborhood.
The deteriorating prison already has been a drag on property values, she said. But the Thursday fire showed the unused prison property has begun to pose a threat to public safety.
“I know there has been trespassing there before,” said Sanchez, noting that she has called police about people climbing a fence to get into the prison. “My kids play in the neighborhood. Anybody could be picked up or worse. I don’t want it to get to that worse.”
The prison on Collins Street, built in the mid-19th century, is a popular structure.
Headlines about the fire Thursday called it the “Blues Brothers” prison, emphasizing its appearance at the start of the movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. People stop to shoot photographs at a small park the city of Joliet created in the parking lot outside the prison’s main entrance. But local patience is wearing thin.
“The years of neglect have finally caught up with the state, and it’s time for the state to acknowledge that what is a historical structure is going to be coming down very soon if nothing is done,” Joliet City Manager Thomas Thanas said.
No one was hurt in the fire, which was contained to one building — a former storage area for the old prison mattress factory.
Joliet firefighters returned to the scene of the fire Thursday night to douse a flare-up that rekindled.
Firefighters were called back about 9 p.m. to the fire that was put out about 15 hours earlier. A fire official described the flare-up as minor.
Thanas, like Sanchez, warned that worse problems would come if the state does not pay closer attention to the prison.
“I understand that the state budget is in a crisis,” Thanas said. “But we think the state is at a point where if they don’t take any action there’s going to be a calamity.”
The state’s money problems are such that it was unclear Friday whether the burnt-out remains from the fire would be cleaned up.
State Sen. Patrick McGuire, D-Joliet, said he had been making calls to make sure the debris would be cleared out and got an uncertain response.
“I would think that the ruins would have to be hauled out of there,” McGuire said. “I was told that the Department of Corrections does not have that in its budget, but Central Management Services might have money in its budget for cleanup.”
The prison, even though it is unused and unmaintained, still is under the control of the Department of Corrections. Typically, unused state buildings are declared surplus and turned over to the Department of Central Management Services so that they can be sold or converted for a new use.
The Joliet prison has been kept in the hands of the DOC because a state crime lab, outside the prison on the other side of Collins Street, is supplied by a water tower on the site. DOC has people at Stateville Correctional Center with the expertise to maintain the water tower, CMS spokeswoman Anjali Julka wrote in an email response to questions about management of the prison property.
But, Julka wrote, the state does not maintain the prison because it has no plans to use the facility.
“In the case with JCC (Joliet Correctional Center), the facility will not be reopened as a prison,” Julka wrote. “Therefore, the state is not spending money to maintain the closed facility or a property that is not intended for re-use as a prison.”
But keeping the prison under the Department of Corrections with no maintenance program also stymies any future re-use of the property.
Joliet city officials for years have been interested in trying to convert the prison into some kind of tourist attraction or other use.
The city brought in a consultant who saw potential for redevelopment but also warned in early 2012 that the prison was deteriorating at a rate that could make it unsalvageable in two to three years. The consultant said it would cost $3.8 million just to stop the deterioration.
“There’s no developer, no matter how creative that developer may be, who would be willing to take over that property in its present condition,” Thanas said.
As tough a task as it might be to redevelop the site, the state’s inaction has made it difficult for the city of Joliet to even try, Thanas said.
“We can’t market the property,” he said, “because, No. 1, we don’t own it, and the state hasn’t expressed any interest in participating in a stabilization program that would make the property developable.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections had posted guards at the fire scene as the cause of the fire continued to be investigated by the state fire marshal’s office. The fire marshal’s office has not commented on its findings.