Museum aims for Joliet prison tours this summer

JOLIET – The Joliet Area Historical Museum hopes to start tours of the old Joliet Correctional Center this summer.

The museum plans are being made with the idea of putting the prison in good enough shape to give people safe access without trying to restore the place to what it was before the state shut it down in 2002.

“We’ve seen the facility when the state cleared all the brush out and mowed the grass, and it looked great,” said Bret Mitchell, chairman of a Facilities and Maintenance Committee that is part a larger committee of museum volunteers who have been making plans for the prison for months.

The state cleanup occurred a few years ago, Mitchell said.

“The building can actually look fantastic once it’s cleaned up,” he said.

Mitchell said he is hopeful that tours can take place by early June.

Local union members and building contractors have been touring the prison looking for ways they can help with the cleanup, Mitchell said.

Museum representatives made a presentation last month to the board of the Three Rivers Construction Alliance, Mitchell said.

The alliance is a labor-contractor alliance, and representatives from the group have already toured the prison three times to see how they could help, Mitchell said.

The goal is to repair sidewalks, supply lighting and fix up windows to the point that tours can be brought into the prison, he said.

“Probably one of the biggest things is clearing out a lot of brush,” he said.

The prospect of prison tours was made possible by the city's decision to enter a five-year lease with the state, which owns the prison.

The lease provides Joliet access to the property and gives the city authority to do repairs.

Museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte is recommending what he called a “stabilized ruin” approach to prison maintenance.

The same approach has been taken at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a closed prison that has been turned into a profitable operation that provides tours, entertainment and historical tours, Peerbolte said.

"I think their operations are a good template for what we can do here in Joliet," Peerbolte told a newly formed Joliet City Council Prison Committee at its first meeting last week.

Peerbolte recommended focusing restoration efforts on four buildings: the main administration building; the cell block attached to the administration building, the North Segregation Unit and the chapel.

Prison tours would take place in the main prison on the west side of Collins Street.

The haunted house planned by Evil Intentions, which runs a haunted house in Elgin, would be set up in the former women's prison on the east side of Collins Street.