City reviewing purge of staff, volunteers at Old Joliet Prison

13 removed since May, workers say

Old Joliet Prison on Monday, April 24, 2023 in Joliet.

Thirteen people, including five volunteers, have been dismissed since late May from the staff at Joliet Area Historical, which manages the Old Joliet Prison, according to accounts from some of the staffers.

Most of them worked primarily at the prison, including two former guards who once were employed at the Joliet Correctional Center and now are barred from stepping foot on the property.

Guard tours are no longer being done at the prison, since it was the two guards who led them.

Prison management is not talking about what happened, saying it is a personnel matter they cannot discuss.

However, the dismissals involve some people who were part of the prison project from the start when volunteers and the Joliet Area Historical Museum began reclaiming the prison property and turned it into a destination spot with tours and events.

Museum Chief Executive Officer Greg Peerbolte confirmed that the prison is not conducting guard tours but would not confirm how many people have been dismissed or say why.

“I just cannot comment on personnel at all,” Peerbolte said.

Several employees and one volunteer spoke out on the matter, some saying they believed they were dismissed unfairly based on accusations tied to website postings they say they had nothing to do with.

Clay Johnson, a retired business partner in an electrical business who was chairman of the committee that organized the Great Joliet Prison Break-In event that opened the prison in 2019, was dismissed from his position as a part-time supervisor of prison projects in early June.

Johnson said he had heard of the other dismissals that had occurred while he was off on vacation and suspected his position may have been in jeopardy when he contacted Peerbolte upon his return.

“I sent him a text saying I’m back from vacation,” Johnson said. “I’m ready to resume my work if I’m still employed. Please advise.”

Johnson said he learned he was not employed in email exchange.

“Everything’s been email,” he said. “My termination was by email.”

Johnson said there were concerns about his supervision of a park project on the outskirts of the prison that needed to be completed by July 1, although he believed it was on a pace to be done in time.

The situation is being investigated by the inspector general for the City of Joliet, which provides funding to the museum and holds the lease on the prison property.

“The reason we’re investigating is the number of terminations in that short period of time,” Inspector General Sean Connolly said. “We feel we owe it to the employees to make sure everything is proper.”

Mike Johnson, no relation to Clay, said his volunteer work with the museum and prison was terminated by an email sent on May 26. His wife, Christine, a museum employee whose duties included prison tours, was fired on the same day.

The reason we’re investigating is the number of terminations in that short period of time. We feel we owe it to the employees to make sure everything is proper.”

—  Sean Connolly, inspector general for the city of Joliet

“I was stunned because I worked there 16 years,” Mike Johnson said.

Johnson is one of the two former prison guards at Joliet Correctional Center who led the guard tours. He volunteered at the museum before the prison was opened.

His termination letter says Johnson is “one of several individuals associated with a webpage and social media group whose content has become progressively threatening, intimidating and harassing of JAHM (Joliet Area Historical Museum) employees and their families.”

It notes a May 19 instance of cyberbullying on the webpage and social media messages on May 24 and 25 that threatened a family member of a JAHM employee.

Johnson said he was unaware of either threat. He and his wife had nothing to do with them, he said.

“He (Peerbolte) said we are guilty by association because we are on the same Facebook page,” Johnson said

Christine Johnson was fired by Peerbolte in person and describes the episode as traumatic.

“I was a sobbing mess,” Christine Johnson said.

Johnson said her termination occurred in a small room in the visitors’ center at the Old Joliet Prison. Two other managers were there, and one was standing in front of the only door out of the room, she said.

Peerbolte talked about “threatening messages on Facebook” and accused her of being part of it, Johnson said.

“He said, ‘You’re involved. You’re despicable,’ ” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Don’t I get a chance to defend myself?’ ”

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

Peerbolte at one point threatened to call police and have her arrested for trespassing even as the door was blocked, Johnson said. She left when another employee, who was working the gift shop at the visitors center and could hear what was going on, came in to get her, Johnson said.

That employee was later terminated as well.

So was Ron Trujillo, who also was working in the gift shop and said he heard Peerbolte terminating Johnson.

“I heard all this hollering and loud talking, and I heard Christine crying,” Trujillo said. “She was really upset, and he was yelling at her: ‘I want you out of here. I’m going to call the police.’ ”

Trujillo said he, too, was later fired in person by Peerbolte, who accused him of being involved in the website intimidations and threats.

“I said, ‘OK, but I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Trujillo said. “I’m walking out, and he’s still talking at me. He said, ‘You insulted my wife.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

The terminated employees said the social media threats apparently involved Peerbolte’s wife.

Trujillo, 70, said he spends no time on social media, and he only logs onto the Internet to buy and sell model airplanes, which is his hobby.

He said he has never been on the website where the alleged threats were made.

“I don’t know how to get on and look at it,” he said.

Trujillo is the other former prison guard who did guard tours at the Old Joliet Prison.

“People who work in corrections form an attachment to the places they work at,” he said. “I was so happy to see that place on the rebound.”

Now, Trujillo said, he does not know if he ever wants to go back.

“I kind of washed my hands of that place now,” he said.