At the start of “The Blues Brothers,” the 1980 comedy classic, “Joliet Jake” Blues walks out the front gate of Joliet Correctional Center, a looming, limestone fortress built in 1858. Now, for the first time since the facility closed in 2002, tourists can walk in through that gate. The Old Joliet Prison, as it’s known locally, is offering public tours.
But the prison outside Chicago is not the Alcatraz of the Midwest. It hasn’t been spruced up with exhibits and an audio tour. There is no heat or jail-cell restoration. Instead it is a tourist experience in “ruin porn” — the trendy photography genre that showcases abandoned and decaying buildings. And the Joliet Area Historical Museum hopes visitors will pay $20 each to walk through and listen to tales from local historians and former prison guards.
“It literally looks like someone just got up and walked away” from the prison, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the museum, which is coordinating the tours. “The forbidden-ness is definitely an asset. There’s a voyeuristic aspect.”
Indeed, a pair of shorts lie on the floor of a cell, left there by a former prisoner — or an actor in one of the shows that filmed in the prison after it closed. Peeling paint drapes down from the ceiling. In the former hospital — built in 1895, one of the oldest buildings on the yard — grime and graffiti tags cover exam-room walls.
The 90-minute walking tour starts at the gate where Jake (John Belushi) walks out of the prison and across the street to meet his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), who is waiting to pick him up.
The prison walls, more than 20 feet high, back right up to the streets surrounding them, and the gate opens onto the roadway. I couldn’t help but crane my neck at the tall limestone barriers as I went in.
“The prisoners built this around themselves,” Peerbolte said from the center of the 16-acre yard, motioning to the walls that surrounded us. Prisoners mined the rock from a nearby quarry, carried it here and walled themselves in.
Inside the fortress, the scenery still looks much like it did in a Season 1 episode of “Prison Break,” the Fox television series that was filmed here.
Peerbolte credits the series, and the John Landis film, with driving much of the tourism the prison is experiencing — especially from international visitors. The museum already has booked a 200-ticket block this summer with a tour operator based in China, where “Prison Break” is very popular.
A man visiting from Italy spoke no English, Peerbolte said, except to ask where John Belushi’s cell was. When he found it, he broke down in tears.
The man “talked about how he’d waited his whole life to see it,” Peerbolte said. “I’m like, ‘You’re from Rome, the cradle of civilization!’ ”
Jessamyn Moore, the museum’s internal operations manager, said she has started recommending that docents watch the shows to not only brush up on pop culture, but to learn what the prison looked like before the decay set in.
As the tour continues around the yard, visitors can read lines engraved above the doorways. “Make time serve you,” greets visitors to the old school. “Make ye a new heart and a new spirit, Ezekiel 18:31” is emblazoned above the chapel. Etched into the floor of the segregation unit, which held cells for prisoners in solitary confinement, are the words that famously appear in the movie’s final scene : “It’s never too late! To mend.”
The building was designed by Chicago architects William W. Boyington and Otis L. Wheelock in the castellated Gothic style. The second-oldest prison in Illinois, built to house 1,800 people, was already over capacity — at nearly 2,000 inmates — by 1878, Peerbolte said.
In “Joliet Prisons: Images in Time,” local historian Robert E. Sterling chronicles the dramatic changes at the facility during the decades it was in operation. Until 1896, black-and-white striped pants, shirts and hats were standard-issue, and prisoners were forced to walk in lock-step. There was no separate facility for young offenders : In 1864, for example, the ages of inmates living in the prison ranged from 10 to 68 years old.
Until 1903, when the dining hall was built, the men ate in their cells. Before showers were installed in the 1920s, prisoners bathed once a week in the summer and once every two weeks in the winter in the prison’s 15 iron tubs. To save time, some were forced to share a soak.
By 1915, prisoners were allowed one hour of daily outdoor recreation. Strict quiet time during meals, work and marching was lifted and inmates could talk to one another. The prison launched a day school and its own newspaper, and trusted inmates were allowed outside the walls to work on a farm, growing food for the prison, according to Sterling’s book. But many of those allowances were eliminated after prisoners rioted in 1917 and set fire to seven buildings.
Our next stop was a cell that was preserved and put on display in the prison yard when the facility was decommissioned. A plaque next to the cell calls Joliet the “last of the Illinois medieval prisons.” It held iron bunk bed frames for mattresses barely wide enough to roll over on. The room was four feet wide, seven feet long and seven feet high. These cells were in use until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when they were remodeled and replaced.
I declined the offer to step inside; just peering in made me want to run in the other direction. Peerbolte said many people have a similar response.
We also visited the cells for solitary confinement, which were a little bigger because, Peerbolte said, prisoners there were allowed outside for only an hour a day. Others spent more of their day at work or in the yard.
In the chapel, a mid-century modern building across the yard, sunlight streamed in through smashed windows and illuminated a roughly hewed altar that was probably built by prisoners. The variety of architectural designs, Peerbolte said, is common as the prison was added onto and improved to meet changing needs over time. The limestone is constant throughout the prison’s buildings.
The question of what to restore, what to remodel and what to save is key to the future of the facility, officials agreed. The answer could determine how far into the future the tours will be offered.
Steve Jones, deputy city manager and economic development manager for the City of Joliet, said the city and the museum have a five-year intergovernmental agreement with the Illinois Department of Corrections to research whether the prison is worth preserving as a community asset and, if so, how to do it. The Illinois Department of Corrections still owns the site.
Along with the historical tours and the tours led by former prison guards, the museum staff is considering tours for amateur photographers and private groups, and even ghost tours, Moore said.
The staff has received inquiries from folks representing travel channels and conducting “paranormal explorations,” as well as film crews from various networks, Jones said. “Empire” recently filmed on site. Joliet’s minor-league baseball team, the Slammers, filmed their promotional video there. A concert held on the prison yard last summer drew 3,500 people and raised $137,000. Peerbolte said he’s even had inquiries about getting married in the chapel.
“Think of all the ball-and-chain jokes,” he said.
There are many other sections of the prison, such as the former warden’s quarters, that remain off limits but could be a big draw for tours once they’re restored.
“People lived and died here. This is a house of pain,” Jones said. But it’s also one that holds more than a century of history, and served as one of the city’s largest employers. “People need to see this place.”
Bookwalter is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @GenevieveBook.
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Old Joliet Prison Tours
1125 N. Collins St., Joliet
The Old Joliet Prison was built in 1858 and held thousands of prisoners during its more than 140 years in use. Tours from April through October. Nonrefundable tickets cost $20 each for 90-minute tour. Guests must be 10 or older; closed-toe shoes required. Tours happen rain or shine. Email email@example.com 72 hours before tour for special accommodations.