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Local News

Joliet council puts prison plan on hold

Graffiti and debris line the Collins Street prison complex March 28 at the Collins Street prison in Joliet.
Graffiti and debris line the Collins Street prison complex March 28 at the Collins Street prison in Joliet.

JOLIET – Joliet is not taking a chance on the Collins Street prison – at least not at the odds being given by the state of Illinois.

The City Council on Tuesday did not say no but voted to table a proposal to take joint ownership of the prison while staff tries to persuade the state to give access to the prison property so its condition can be assessed.

Joliet for years has looked at the potential of converting the famous Joliet Correctional Center into some sort of tourism use. The state closed the prison in 2002, and it has been deteriorating without any maintenance since.

City Manager Jim Hock and Greg Peerbolte, director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, pitched a proposal to the council to pursue joint ownership of the prison between the city and the museum.

“When you meet someone from just about anywhere in the country, and you say where you’re from, they say, ‘Oh, you’ve got the prison,’” Hock said.

But he outlined increasingly hazardous conditions at the prison that even threaten the safety of firefighters who go in on occasions when trespassers set fires.

Peerbolte said the Joliet prison has international recognition, and visitors to the museum frequently seek a chance to tour the Collins Street site.

“We have the international recognition that goes back to 1914 in the film industry,” Peerbolte said as he showed a list of movies and TV programs over the years that have featured the Joliet prison in the plots.

“I hear, ‘We don’t want that prison reputation,’” Peerbolte said. “I argue, own it. You already have it. Own it. Monetize it.”

He provided information about revenues gained from prison tours and events at Alcatraz prison in San Francisco and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

Council members expressed interest in the idea but wariness of what they might get into without being able to evaluate the potential costs of ownership.

“I think the project’s exciting,” Councilman Michael Turk said.

Then he added, “So, the state won’t let us in, but they’ll let us assume the whole institution as is?”

“For $10,” Councilwoman Jan Quillman said, quoting an oft-repeated price at which the state would be willing to let go of the prison.

Councilman Terry Morris at one point expressed the absurdity of the situation in which the city, which is interested in ownership, can’t get access to a property that has become notorious for trespassers.

“I don’t want this to sound stupid,” Morris said. “If people can break in, what do we need to do to get in and assess it?”

City Attorney Marty Shanahan said he would attempt to get a formal response from the Department of Corrections on a formal request to get access to the site.

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