Union flooded with volunteers for cleanup at old Joliet prison

JOLIET – So many people contacted Laborers Local 75 on Thursday for an upcoming cleanup project at the old Joliet prison that the union is turning away some of them.

“We got so many volunteers that we cut it off at 50,” said Mike Serena, secretary-treasurer for Crest Hill-based Local 75.

“I had to run away a guy today who was from Springfield, Illinois,” Serena said. “I had to turn away another guy who worked with the Wisconsin prison system. And I hate to do that.”

Serena said he needs a manageable crew when they go into the former Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street for the April 21 cleanup.

Local 75 is only one local union involved in the cleanup that is organized by unions in the Will & Grundy Counties Building Trades Council and contractors with the Contractors Association of Will and Grundy Counties.

The Joliet Area Historical Museum has been working with unions and contractors to organize volunteer for cleanup and repairs with hopes of opening the prison for some kind of tours this summer.

The museum, city and Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry are planning a grand-opening event at the prison that they hope to hold in late August.

The city signed a five-year lease on the prison in December, which gave Joliet access to the facility for the first time since it was closed in 2002.

Since then, enthusiasm for opening the prison for tours has been mounting.

Other plans are in the works, too. Evil Intentions, an Elgin haunted house operator, plans to open
a haunted house
in the former women's prison during the Halloween season.

Serena said the flood of calls came Thursday after Local 75 had posted a notice for volunteers on its Facebook page earlier in the week.

Most of the volunteers are from Joliet and surrounding towns, but people are coming from Orland Park and the Palos Township area, as well, he said.

By late Thursday morning, Serena said he already had to turn away more than 20 people who wanted to join the effort.

Volunteers also might be interested in getting a look inside the prison, which never has been opened
to the public but has been part of Joliet since it began taking inmates in 1858.

Serena said he understands the interest in landmark prisons.

“I’ve been to Alcatraz before, and it was phenomenal,” he said. “I think they could do something like that (at the Joliet prison). It’s got more than prison history.”

The prison’s place in movie history, including the opening scene of “The Blues Brothers,” and its proximity to the historic Route 66, a popular travel route for tourists, were two examples Serena cited as the potential marketability of the prison as a tourist site.