Joliet seeks national historic status for prison

Nomination includes focus on minorities, immigrants at old Joliet Correctional Center

The city will pursue National Register Historic District status for the old Joliet Correctional Center while delving deeper into the history of the prison, particularly the experience of minorities who have worked and been incarcerated there.

The 180-acre prison site along Collins Street would become the fourth National Register Historic District in Joliet if the city is successful.

The city is using a $35,000 grant from the National Park Service Underrepresented Communities Grant Program, which is designed to create more diversity in the places nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

“In order to tell the true story of the Joliet prison or any penal institution, you have to delve into issues of race and minority groups,” city planner Jayne Bernhard said. “They funded us because we are going to tell the full story of the history of the prison.”

Getting the prison placed on the National Register of Historic Places should broaden the potential market for visitors and open up more grant opportunities for restoration, Bernhard said.

Other advantages, she said, include potential tax credits for such projects as Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group’s conversion of the former women’s prison on-site to the Old Joliet Haunted Prison last floor.

Bernhard said National Register status would not create any new restrictions on buildings beyond what has been in place since 1992 when the state determined the Joliet Correction Center to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“We feel it’s going to allow us to keep moving forward with the documentation of that site,” she said.

Ramsey Historic Consultants, Inc. has been hired to prepare a report on the prison’s history for the nomination.

The proposal from Ramsey states that its nomination research will provide historical information that can be used for interpretation and education at the prison.

The research will include “an emphasis on the evolution of criminal justice through the 19th and 20th centuries, and the lived experience of those who resided and worked at the prison, particularly immigrants, women and minority groups,” the proposal states.

Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, said there are lessons to be learned by studying the history of the prison.

He pointed to efforts by Black journalist Ida B. Wells and the Negro Fellowship League in the early 20th Century to make a case that the overrepresentation of African Americans in the prison indicated problems in the criminal justice system.

“This was over a hundred years ago,” Peerbolte said. “Sometimes we think this is a new problem.”

The Joliet Area Historical Museum manages the prison as a tour and event site for the city of Joliet, which has a lease with the state allowing the city to open the site up to visitors and develop it for new uses.

The prison property has been used for concerts, Halloween-themed tours, and even a disc golf tournament.

Peerbolte said the establishment of a National Register Historic District would further education efforts and help attract visitors interested in the prison’s history.

“We’re excited to bring these narratives forward,” he said. “There are a lot of stories that I think would be not known at all if we were not doing this project.”

The city has three other historic districts, including the Joliet Steel Works National Register Historic District just south of the prison site, the East Side National Register Historic District, and Upper Bluff National Register Historic District.