Group tours former Joliet lockup with eye on saving it
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org July 19, 2011 9:15PM
People walk towards the entrance of the shuttered Joliet Correctional Center on Tuesday, July 19, 2011. State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi led a tour to revive interest in the facility. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
About Joliet Correctional Center
1858: Built by convict labor with limestone quarried on the site.
1866: George Chase, a convicted horse thief, was executed for killing Deputy Warden Joe Clark during an attempted escape.
1924: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were sentenced to life in the Joliet prison for the kidnapping and murder of Robert Franks, known as “the crime of the century.” Defended by Clarence Darrow, the pair escaped the death penalty.
1932: George “Baby Face” Nelson, a bank robber and killer, was being returned to the prison from a court appearance when someone smuggled a gun to him. Nelson pulled the gun on his guard at the prison gate and forced a cab to drive him to Chicago.
1939: Elvyn Wood of Morris executed for the murder of his best friend for money. Wood was one of 13 men executed by electric chair between 1928 and 1942 at the Joliet prison.
1973: Members of the Black P. Stone Nation and other Chicago gangs take over cell block. One inmate was killed by the rioters.
Average daily population: 1,213
Showbiz: Featured in the movies “The Blues Brothers” and “Let’s Go to Prison,” and the TV show, “Prison Break.”
Updated: November 8, 2011 12:33AM
JOLIET — The old Joliet prison is falling apart on the inside.
City and regional planners are taking a new look at the potential for putting the historic and famous prison to commercial use.
But job one was made clear in a Tuesday tour organized by state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet.
“We need to secure the property,” said Wilhelmi, who also heads a Collins Street Task Force that looks out for future development opportunities at the prison and other sites along Collins Street.
“I don’t think there’s another piece of property like this in the state of Illinois,” Wilhelmi said. “How do we preserve it? And, how do we maximize the use of it?”
To make his point, Wilhelmi had some of the leaders of state government in the tour: Warren Ribley, head of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity; Jan Kostner, head of the Bureau of Tourism; and Salvador “Tony” Godinez, head of the Department of Corrections.
What the group of more than 50 people saw was impressive at times and at other times not.
Paint peeled from ceilings like stalactites hanging in a dark cave. The hard metal of prison bars turning to rust. And, shattered glass covered the floor of offices that still showed the handiwork of hand-crafted wood panelling from a past era.
Even so, tour guide Kevin Senor offered the kind of information that showed why there is an enduring interest in the Joliet prison made famous in both film and the annals of crime.
“The first brick was laid here in 1858,” Senor said, letting the fact settle in that the structure dates back a century and a half.
Some 150 buildings stretch across the 26 acres of prison property, including seven cell towers, a gymnasium, a hospital and a power plant. A cafeteria contains bright orange tables and a barred catwalk.
“The officers had weapons up there, and they would control the inmates,” Senor said.
Senor, because of his experience as the former business manager of the prison, could even give a sense of what life was like at the prison before it closed in 2002.
“When the place was open, the inmates were required to keep up the yards,” Senor said. “The yards were immaculate when they did it. The inmates had pride.”
The yards are now high with weeds. Nothing is immaculate inside the Joliet Correctional Center, although the place still gives an impressive aura from the outside. The limestone structure stands strong when viewed from the front parking lot that two years ago was converted into a tourist stop with historical information posted on placards paid for by the city of Joliet and state of Illinois.
The Joliet City Council just Monday accepted a $15,000 grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning that will be used to strategize a redevelopment plan for both the prison and nearby U.S. Steel plant, which also has been vacant for years. The Chicago-based Urban Land Institute will be part of that effort.
This is not the first time the city has tried to develop a plan for the prison site.
A Chicago-based real estate developer in 2008 offered to help find development prospects for the property. But that venture faded as the economy declined.
Even so, there is a lot of interest in the prison, said Tony Contos, director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum and part of the tour group.
Asked if the museum gets inquiries about the prison, Contos answered, “Always. All of the visitors, whether they’re from this country or around the world, ask if there’s a chance that the prison will open.”
Contos said just a 20-minute tour through a small part of the prison would draw people.
But even that is difficult to do right now, state officials said, because of the potential liability of opening the property to visitors.
Still, Wilhelmi said, that’s the sort of thing he has in mind for the future of the Joliet prison.
“We have to be creative in our planning,” he said. “Every year that goes by the property is in worse condition. The point is we have to take action now to get the property in the right condition.”
State funding is a problem, he acknowledged. Wilhelmi and others say they’d look for nongovernment partners in trying to invest money back into the prison.
Do nothing, Mayor Thomas Giarrante noted, and a big piece of Joliet history could go away.
“If nothing is done, it’s going to deteriorate and eventually it will have to be torn down,” Giarrante said. “Hopefully, we’ll get the right people to develop this place.”
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