Progress at old Joliet prison; arson unsolved
BY BOB OKON firstname.lastname@example.org September 16, 2013 11:01PM
A fire broke out overnight in the Joliet prison made famous in the movie “The Blues Brothers”. | NVP
Updated: October 18, 2013 6:24AM
Investigators still are looking for the culprits who started a July 25 fire that appears to have led to improved security and maintenance at the former Joliet Correctional Center.
The arson investigation may be the one area where there has not been progress.
City and state officials, as well as a community organizer who raised concerns that the abandoned prison was a problem for the neighborhood, all report more attention being paid to the site.
“It is looking a lot better from the outside,” said Amy Sanchez, of the Collins Street Neighborhood Council.
In the aftermath of the fire, Sanchez had called on the state to take responsibility for the old prison, and Joliet officials also suggested more attention was needed there.
At least for now, some problems are being addressed, although taking care of the 19th century structure — known for its appearance in movies, including “The Blues Brothers” — remains an expensive and uncertain proposition for the long term.
Sanchez said prisoners from Stateville Correctional Center, supervised by guards, have cut down weeds and brush that were growing around the perimeter of the vacant prison.
The Joliet Fire Department, which had to fight the July fire from the outside the prison walls because firefighters could not get in, now has keys to the building. Joliet police now have keys, too, as security has been stepped up at the former prison,
Fire Chief Joseph Formhals said city and state officials discussed the access problem and “kind of sorted things out. I think the state understands our situation.”
The fire was declared an arson Aug. 1, and the state fire marshal’s office believes it was set by intruders, spokeswoman Milly Santiago said.
“It was intentionally set by someone who gained access there,” she said.
Joliet Correctional Center’s 144-year history as a working prison ended in 2002. A state-guided tour of the site two years ago revealed broken glass and other signs of vandalism. Walls near the fire site in July had been spray-painted with graffiti.
The Illinois Department of Corrections previously sent correctional officers to the property three times a day to patrol the outside. Now, DOC has added at least one interior patrol a day, a department spokesman said.
And the state now shares patrols with Joliet police who also check the site once a day.
State Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Joliet) heads a Collins Street Task Force created in large part to try to solve the problem of what to do with the old prison. He said the group at least has the attention of the governor’s office since the fire.
McGuire said he and state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr. (D-Elwood), “have been in frequent contact with the governor’s office about the future of the property.”
The future still appears cloudy.
McGuire said he has never been given a good reason why the prison has not been handed over to Central Management Services, the state agency that takes control of state property to find a new owner. But he said “we’re starting to get some answers.”
Joliet officials want to see the property put to use. They see potential in the iconic prison site, with its classic limestone walls built in 1858. But the buildings have had little maintenance since being shut down 11 years ago.
“There’s been more attention paid to the maintenance of the property,” City Manager Thomas Thanas said of activity since the fire.
But he said the site needs more than weeding and brush cleared.
“Joliet remains interested in seeing the building get into the right hands,” Thanas said. “The problem we have is there’s a substantial cost in regards to stabilizing the building.”
City officials hope the state would assist if a qualified developer showed interest, but such assistance seems unlikely in light of the state’s severe financial problems.