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Joliet prison open for tours? Proposal to sell the building for $10 made

Karen Sorensen | 5/21/2014, 7:28 p.m.
Under legislation proposed by state Rep. Larry Walsh, the city of Joliet could purchase the Collins Street prison and use ...
The former Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street in Joliet.

If you've seen the "Blues Brothers," then you know this is the gate that Joliet Jake, played by John Belushi, exits when he's released from prison at the start of the movie.

If you've seen the "Blues Brothers," then you know this is the gate that Joliet Jake, played by John Belushi, exits when he's released from prison at the start of the movie.

The city of Joliet may be able to buy the old Joliet Correctional Center from the state for just $10 and open it up for tours under legislation proposed by state Rep. Larry Walsh.

The Joliet City Council was briefed on the proposal this week by City Manager Jim Hock, who said Walsh’s bill would give the city a year to develop the site for another use. If nothing is done within the yearlong timeframe, ownership would revert back to the state.

The purchase price would include not just the Collins Street prison but the nearby women’s prison, which Hock said has been described as being in “pristine condition.”

The same cannot be said for the men’s prison, the huge limestone structure made famous by the “Blues Brothers” movie that closed in 2002.

A few weeks ago the brick roof on the central administrative building collapsed and fell three stories into the basement, Hock said. The estimated cost to replace it is $1.3 million.

And with ownership will come liability and responsibility, Hock said, but it could also prove to be an excellent tourist attraction. Were tours to be given, they’d have to be restricted to the outside areas and the few buildings that can be viewed through windows, he said.

“You can view it from the outside by looking in where the guards used to be,” Hock said. “They were protected behind bars and glass. … Visitors could look at the old cells but not be exposed to the lead paint that’s peeling everywhere.”

Only At-large Councilman Jim McFarland voiced an opinion on the concept.

“I do want to see old prison utilized, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily the city’s (job) to take ownership and push that through,” he said. “I’d like to be the conduit that maybe worked with private development or maybe a museum or somebody for the city.”

Mayor Tom Giarrante said one unanswered question is whether the city could still return the prisons within a year if they started giving tours and then decided to stop.

Hock said he planned to meet with officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections and the governor’s office to discuss the concept in more depth.

The bill to sell the buildings is still in the early stages, and there is no guarantee it will be approved. Walsh told Hock he was seeking this avenue because legislation to provide tax credits for developers who take over empty state structures did not succeed.

Contact Karen Sorensen at Karen@TheTimesWeekly.com.