Old Joliet Prison delivers revenue during pandemic

Short-term revenue has been a boon, but long-term expenses are bigger

The Old Joliet Prison was a revenue lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Joliet Area Historical Museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte.

Peerbolte recently gave an update on prison progress as the city negotiates a possible acquisition of the former Joliet Correctional Center from the state, which owns it. The prison was the museum’s sole source of revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, although it is not generating the millions needed for long-term stabilization of buildings on the site.

The prison proved in the past year to be pandemic-proof at least on a small scale, Peerbolte said.

Large events that had been planned, like an anniversary showing of “The Blues Brothers” movie, had to be downsized. But tours continued and self-guided tours were started in an outdoor environment in which people could be kept apart while visiting the former Joliet Correctional Center.

“It kind of turned into an asset during a pandemic,” Peerbolte said. “It worked very well for social distancing.”

Peerbolte pointed to October when revenue was up 28% at the prison compared to the pre-pandemic October of 2019 thanks to the start of self-guided tours that generated $10,000 that month.

“It saved the museum,” Peerbolte said of prison revenue in a presentation last week to the Joliet City Council Prison Committee last week.

The prison at least kept museum staff working during the pandemic, when revenue from the museum itself was non-existent because the building was closed to visitors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Joliet Area Historical Museum manages the Old Joliet Prison in a partnership with the city of Joliet, which has a lease on the state-owned property.

The lease expires at the end of 2022, and the city is in talks with the state about a transfer of ownership.

The city leased the property in large part to step in and prevent the vandalism and trespassing that plagued the prison since it had been closed in 2002. A large-scale volunteer effort also cleaned up the site and stemmed some of the deterioration of prison buildings.

Prison Committee Chairwoman Bettye Gavin said she believes the state is not interested in owning the property, and the city is the only entity willing to protect it from decay and put it to some use.

“I feel confident when all is said and done that we hope to be the owner of the property,” Gavin said Monday.

The prison building are in need of an estimated $10 million in maintenance just to stabilize structures.

While the revenues being produced on the site are a big asset to the museum organization, they prison is not generating the kind of money needed for long-term maintenance needs, Peerbolte said.

The city is looking for $75,000 in its budget to to stabilize a power house smokestack in danger of collapse.

Peerbolte said the state should be expected to play a role in stabilizing buildings, pointing to the collapse of a portion of the prison administration building that is a prominent structure facing the main parking lot.

“There is a sense of urgency that we hope the state will be responsive to,” he said.

Bob Okon

Bob Okon covers local government for The Herald-News