Joliet officials assessing prison condition this week

7/12/2017, 9:32 a.m.
Some Joliet officials are headed to prison this week.

Some Joliet officials are headed to prison this week.

However, unlike some recent Illinois government scofflaws who had no choice, the Joliet contingent is touring the state-owned Collins Street prison this Thursday to decide what needs to be done to save it.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk who will attend the tour with the heads of most of the city’s departments called the facility an “eyesore” and noted that public works crews were doing what they could this summer to make the facility, at least from the outside, presentable by cutting down weeds.

“It reflects poorly on the city,” he said of the site’s condition.

O’Dekirk said that the group will assess the condition of the inside of the facility and determine what needs to be done to stabilize it and possibly get it in to a state that’s suitable for outside tours.

In May, the city considered a plan presented by the Joliet Area Historical Museum for turning the prison in to a tourist attraction. Board members decided they needed to know more about the condition of the grounds and buildings before agreeing to make the purchase though.

Former City Manager Jim Hock and museum director Greg Peerbolte presented the plan in May which would have started with securing the facility and fixing safety issues including the closure of some open access doors as well as gaps in the fencing.

In recent months, the police have had to respond to a 911 call after two women trespassing on the site locked themselves in to a cell. A fire over Memorial Day weekend this summer gutted one of the buildings on the site which the state closed in 2002.

A CMAP study conducted on the facility proposed several plans to renovate the prison ranging from investments of $3.8 million up to $79 million. Hock in May recommended a smaller-scale plan that would see the city purchase the facility for $100,000 and initially begin to put up trespassing signs and motion detector lights.

Peerbolte cited the success of other prisons-turned-attractions including Alcatraz, Sing Sing, and the Ohio reformatory where the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption was filmed as precedents for the purchase and conversion. He also noted the notoriety of the Joliet site from movies like the Blues Brothers and the TV show Prison Break.

In all of those cases, he said, tourism of the prisons was a consistent source of revenue with places like Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia netting just over $2 million from its haunted house that runs each fall.