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Old Joliet Prison.
This replica electric chair didn't survive long at the prison. Joliet hopes to put the real chair on permanent display.

Old Joliet Prison

Field review by the editors.

Joliet, Illinois

Old Joliet Prison is both loved and loathed by its hometown. It provided steady local employment for nearly 150 years, and spawned the name of Joliet's minor league baseball team: the Slammers. But like Leavenworth, Kansas, and Attica, New York, the prison gradually became synonymous with the city, and the nickname "Prison Town" annoyed a lot of locals. When the prison closed in 2002, many residents hoped that it was gone for good.

Old Joliet Prison.
Leprous cellblock is ominous even without inmates.

However, Joliet is on Route 66, and Old Joliet Prison makes a memorable appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers when "Joliet Jake" (John Belushi) is released from his cell, dramatically exits a main gate, and is driven away by his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) in the Bluesmobile car. The prison was on screen for only five minutes, but left a lasting impression with many Mother Road fans.

Executive director Greg Peerbolte leads a tour.
Executive director Greg Peerbolte leads a tour.

"We were getting inundated with emails and phone calls. People were begging to get in," said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, describing the years that the prison sat abandoned. "There was one gentleman who came all the way from Rome; a huge Blues Brothers fan. We took him to the John Belushi cell, and he was weeping. Here's this guy from Rome, with thousands of years of history -- Christianity, the Roman emperors -- and he's weeping at Joliet Jake's cell. So we knew we were onto something."

Gutted prison chapel may eventually host theme weddings.
Gutted prison chapel may eventually host theme weddings.

The prison, Greg said, had many infamous inmates -- John Wayne Gacy, Baby Face Nelson, James Earl Ray -- but its most asked-for cell is the one for Joliet Jake, a fictional prisoner. "That," he said, "speaks to the interest."

Before the prison could open for public tours -- which it finally did in 2018 -- it had to be scrubbed of 15 years of vandalism. The solid limestone walls, 25 feet high, had been no obstacle for jerks. "There were thousands of graffiti tags, four separate arson fires, and virtually every window was broken," said Greg. "It took months just to make it safe enough for people to walk the outdoor paths."

The prison, like Eastern State Penitentiary, has been restored to what Greg called a "stabilized ruin." Broadly speaking, a self-guided tour will take you to the safest parts within the walled compound, while a more expensive guided tour will take you into otherwise off-limits buildings -- although Greg said that the goal, eventually, is to open as many prison buildings as possible to the public.

Old Joliet Prison.
Some of the prison is still too unsafe to be unlocked.

Some of the structures are beyond salvation: mere piles of collapsed debris. In others, yellow caution tape blocks dangerous stairways. The walls have scabby crusts of peeling paint, which also hangs from ceilings like stalactites. Abandoned equipment is covered with rust and lichen. Greg said that the most photographed spot in the prison is a vandal-graffiti portrait of Bart Simpson being fried in an electric chair. He also said that work was underway to bring back Joliet's real electric chair -- currently at another prison -- and display it in the city's downtown historical museum. The prison itself, now without light and heat, Greg said, is too harsh for a real electric chair.

Gift shop props for your Blues Brothers selfies.
Gift shop props for your Blues Brothers selfies.

"Some people will run off and try to sneak into a building," said Greg. "You know, 'I paid and I want to see this.' But it isn't always possible."

"This is a prison," said Greg. "There are rules."

One relic visible to all visitors is a tiny, original 1858 Joliet cell, dragged outside and left on the prison grounds during a 1950s renovation. "Maybe," said Greg, "it was a way to remind prisoners who complained about their accommodations. 'Hey, look at where you would have been for the first 100 years.'" The claustrophobic 4x7x7 space would have been packed with up to four inmates. "People think it's a punishment cell, but these were the cells for everyone."

Old Joliet Prison.
Motivational message on the floor of solitary confinement.

Tour guides at the prison point out its castellated Gothic-style architecture and golden-hued Joliet limestone, which the original inmates had to quarry before walling themselves in with it. Much attention is paid to the prison's long history of brutal conditions and forced on-site labor, where prisoners were "leased" to private companies that manufactured everything from boots to cigars. "It promoted mass incarceration," said Greg. "When you're making money like that, the incentive is not necessarily to rehabilitate. It's to get more bodies into the prison."

Said Greg, "I think 90 percent of our visitors leave here feeling more empathetic."

Despite the staff's preference for thoughtful public education, they also recognize the giddy allure of Old Joliet Prison. Everyone is welcome, including those who just want to see Route 66's most famous maximum security penitentiary, or who are on a pilgrimage inspired by "the greatest movie to be filmed in Illinois," according to a sign at the prison.

Greg said that he once hosted a non-Blues-Brothers tour group from Mount Prospect (the supposed birthplace of the Bluesmobile) and when he opened a gate to leave -- the same one seen in the film -- parked outside was a Bluesmobile replica, driven by two guys dressed as Jake and Elwood. "One was kissing the ground," Greg recalled. "I said, 'You guys wanna come in for a look around?' They were in shock. It might have been the high point of their lives."

Old Joliet Prison

1125 Collins St., Joliet, IL
North side of the city. From Route 66 downtown jog east onto US-30/Lincoln Hwy, then turn north onto Collins St. Drive 1.5 miles. You'll see the prison on the left, at the intersection of Woodruff Rd.
W-Su 10-5. Guided tours should be booked in advance. Closed in winter. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Tours $20 and up.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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