A prison without a plan
By Bob Okon email@example.com September 23, 2013 9:04PM
Joliet Correctional Center on Nov. 30, 2001. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: October 25, 2013 6:25AM
The state has a process for dealing with its vacant properties, but that protocol has not been followed at the old Joliet Correctional Center, which was shuttered in 2002.
The prison on Collins Street, a limestone landmark deteriorating into an eyesore, is still managed by the Illinois Department of Corrections instead of being turned over to the state agency that typically oversees vacated properties.
“If there’s anything going to be done with the prison as far as development or upgrades, then it has to get out of Department of Corrections,” state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, said Monday when asked about the future of the prison.
Typically, Walsh said, the prison would have been turned over to the state’s Central Management Services agency, which seeks other users — in government or the private sector — for unused state property.
Why didn’t that happen with the Joliet prison?
“Bureaucracy,” Walsh suggested. “The whole process has kind of languished for 10 years.”
It may languish longer because of a potential bureaucratic hang-up.
State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, who himself had been asking why DOC still has the old prison, now says it probably should stay in the hands of prison officials. DOC cannot put up the property for sale, McGuire said. But he learned Monday that if CMS took over the prison, all maintenance and security could stop.
The two state departments would have to work out a shared service agreement for DOC to continue maintenance and security, McGuire said.
“Getting a shared service agreement may take time and may not be a sure thing,” McGuire said. “To keep the prison from becoming more of an eyesore and more of a hazard, it would seem best to leave it in DOC’s hands while the prison’s future is being determined.”
The future of the prison started getting closer attention since a July fire believed to have been caused by someone who got inside. Joliet firefighters, unable to get equipment inside the prison walls, fought the blaze from Collins Street. Joliet and state officials since have worked together to improve emergency response procedures and security.
But the stepped-up maintenance has mainly been cutting down weeds and brush with no answers in sight on how to stop the 19th Century structure from rotting away. One study has estimated that it would cost nearly $4 million just to stabilize the prison buildings.
The fire also exposed confusion within the state bureaucracy over the management of the old prison.
In the immediate aftermath, DOC officials referred questions about the future of the prison to CMS, saying the prison was under that agency’s control. CMS bounced the questions back to DOC, saying no the prison was in their hands.
The reason given in July for the prison staying in DOC control was that staff from Stateville Correctional Center was needed to maintain a water tower that supplied water to a nearby state crime lab. But it turned out that the water tower was shut down, too, and the crime lab has been getting water from the city of Joliet for at least two years.
DOC spokesman Tom Shaer last week said in an emailed response to questions seeking to clarify why the corrections department still has the prison, “There is no particular reason for DOC to maintain control of Old Joliet Prison.”
“DOC,” Shaer wrote, “controls the property. We will work with CMS whenever matters involving future use arise. The reason DOC still controls the property is not to maintain wells, the water tower or anything similar.”
Meanwhile, city officials are looking for the state to become more active in finding a future use for the prison property.
“The Department of Corrections has no money to maintain it,” said Mayor Thomas Giarrante, raising questions as to how much care DOC can give to the decaying prison. Giarrante said that in talks between city and state officials, it appeared that CMS might have money to put into the facility.
The Urban Land Institute in 2012 did a study for the city on potential uses for the prison and reported possibilities. But, the Chicago-based group said, it would take $3.8 million just to stabilize the facility and time was running out.
Giarrante said there is private business interest in putting the old prison to use, but not with $3.8 million of repair costs waiting for them. Joliet is looking for the state to put up some money for the sake of redevelopment.
“We want whatever it takes to get it off dead center,” Giarrante said. “If CMS wants to do it, if DOC wants to do it — but somebody’s going to have to step up or else it’s going to continue to deteriorate like it is already.”