Old Joliet Prison ready to resume another tour season

30,000 people have visited the prison since it was opened up in 2018

Chalkboard in the Visitors Center at the Old Joliet Prison lists prison tours and prices.

About 30,000 people have visited the Old Joliet Prison, and the prison resumes tours for more of them on Saturday.

The Old Joliet Prison begins its fifth season of tours since the first were done in late 2018.

The tours started shortly after the city of Joliet opened up the former Joliet Correctional Center to visitors for tours and events under a lease with the state, which is up for renewal at the end of this year.

About a quarter of the 30,000 visitors have come for special events at the prison, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, which manages the prison for the city. But most have come for the tours, which Peerbolte said is good for the prison.

“When you figure that half of that time since we’ve been doing this there has been a pandemic that literally shut us down or limited attendance, I think that number shows a good worth of concept,” Peerbolte said.

The concept was that if you opened the famed Joliet Correctional Center, which has a place in popular culture as a setting for “The Blues Brothers,” other movies and crime TV shows over decades, people would come.

As of Thursday, 250 have signed up for prison tours this year, the highest number yet for pre-season registration, Peerbolte said.

“What we need to sustain the project is a steady stream of people who are coming for the tours,” he said.

Visitors over the next few weeks will see repairs being done on what had been a crumbling smokestack at the prison powerhouse. The project, funded with $248,000 in city money, is an example of the repairs needed to maintain the prison, which was built in 1858.

Tours range in price from $20 to $50 and are a major source of revenue for the prison project.

There are five kinds of tours that include those led by museum guides and others led by former prison guards. Special “haunting history tours” and photography tours also are available.

The museum last year started self-guided tours, which are $20 to the general public with discounts for children under 12, to take advantage of the many travelers who stop to see the prison while traveling through Joliet.

The museum plans to make an audio tour available for the self-guided visitors as early as June. New sign boards for the main parking lot also are on order to provide more information about the prison and its history. A visitors center opened last year in a former guard house.

There is limited access to prison buildings because of safety concerns, although the museum hopes to make more available.

“There is a huge appetite to open up more of the site to the self-guided tours,” Peerbolte said. “That’s what we’re concentrating on.”

Six buildings are open for the guided tours. One building – the North Segregation Building – is open for the self-guided tours.

Peerbolte said the museum plans to open the two cell block buildings for self-guided tours in the future. But first, the cell blocks need to be barricaded to prevent visitors from wandering down passages into other buildings not yet safe to visit.

The prison was closed by the state in 2002 without much maintenance in the 16 years before the city exerted some control over the site.

A sign along Collins Street outside the Old Joliet Prison marks state; recognition for Joliet efforts to restore the former Joliet Correctional Center.

Much of the maintenance since then has been on a volunteer basis. But the prison project got a shot in the arm this month when $3 million for renovations and repairs was included in a federal spending bill.

It’s the biggest injection of money into the project yet.

City officials at one time talked about taking ownership of the prison, but the cost of future maintenance remains an issue.

For now, the city is working on lease renewal for another five years, said Chris Regis, deputy corporation counsel for Joliet. The city lease is up in December.

Joliet is negotiating the terms of a new lease with the state, Regis said.

He would not discuss details of the negotiations other than to say, “We’re still going back and forth on some issues.”