At the start of The Blues Brothers, the 1980 comedy classic, “Joliet Jake” Blues walks out the front gate of Joliet Correctional Center, a looming, limestone fortress built in 1858. Now tourists can walk in through that gate at the facility that closed in 2002. The Old Joliet Prison, as it’s known in the Illinois city about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, is offering public tours.
But the prison is not the Alcatraz of the Midwest. It hasn’t been cleaned up, like Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It has no exhibits, audio tour, heat, or jail-cell restoration. Instead, it is a tourist experience in “ruin porn” — the trendy photography genre that showcases abandoned and decaying buildings.
And the Joliet Area Historical Museum hopes that visitors will pay $20 each to walk through and listen to tales from local historians and former prison guards.
"It literally looks like someone just got up and walked away" from the prison, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the museum, which is coordinating the tours. "The forbiddenness is definitely an asset. There's a voyeuristic aspect."
Indeed, a pair of shorts lies on the floor of a cell, left there by a former inmate — or maybe an actor in one of the shows that filmed in the prison after it closed. Peeling paint drapes down from the ceiling. In the former hospital — built in 1895, one of the oldest buildings on the yard — grime and graffiti tags cover exam-room walls.
The 90-minute walking tour starts at the gate where Jake (John Belushi) walks out of the prison and across the street to meet his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), who is waiting to pick him up.
The prison walls, more than 20 feet high, back right up to the streets surrounding them, and the gate opens onto the roadway. I couldn't help but crane my neck at the tall limestone barriers as I entered.
"The prisoners built this around themselves," Peerbolte said from the center of the 16-acre yard, motioning to the walls that surrounded us. Prisoners mined the rock from a nearby quarry, carried it here, and walled themselves in.
Inside the fortress, the scenery still looks much like it did in a Season 1 episode of Prison Break, the Fox television series that was filmed here.
Peerbolte credits the series, which aired from 2005 to 2009 and then in 2017, and the John Landis film with driving much of the tourism the prison has experienced — especially from international visitors.
A man visiting from Italy spoke little English, Peerbolte said, but asked where John Belushi's cell was. When he found it, he broke down in tears. The man "talked about how he'd waited his whole life to see it," Peerbolte said. "I'm like, 'You're from Rome, the cradle of civilization!' "
Jessamyn Moore, the museum's internal operations manager, said she has started recommending that docents watch the shows to not only brush up on pop culture, but to learn what the prison looked like before the decay set in.
As the tour continues around the yard, visitors can read lines engraved above the doorways. "Make time serve you," greets visitors to the old school. "Make ye a new heart and a new spirit, Ezekiel 18:31" is emblazoned above the chapel. Etched into the floor of the segregation unit, which held cells for prisoners in solitary confinement, are the words that famously appear in the movie's final scene: "It's never too late! To mend."
The building was designed by Chicago architects William W. Boyington and Otis L. Wheelock in the castellated Gothic style. The second-oldest prison in Illinois, built to house 1,800 people, was already over capacity — at nearly 2,000 inmates — by 1878, Peerbolte said.
In Joliet Prisons: Images in Time, local historian Robert E. Sterling chronicles the dramatic changes at the facility during the decades it was in operation. Until 1896, black-and-white striped pants, shirts, and hats were standard issue, and prisoners were forced to walk in lockstep. There was no separate facility for young offenders: In 1864, for example, the ages of inmates living in the prison ranged from 10 to 68 years old.
Until 1903, when the dining hall was built, the men ate in their cells. Before showers were installed in the 1920s, prisoners bathed once a week in the summer and once every two weeks in the winter in the prison's 15 iron tubs. To save time, some were forced to share a soak.
By 1915, prisoners were allowed one hour of daily outdoor recreation. A strict rule mandating quiet time during meals, work, and marching was lifted, and inmates could talk to one another. The prison launched a day school and its own newspaper, and trusted inmates were allowed outside the walls to work on a farm, growing food for the prison, according to Sterling's book. But many of those allowances were eliminated after prisoners rioted in 1917 and set fire to seven buildings.
One stop on the tour was a cell that was preserved and put on display in the prison yard when the facility was decommissioned. A plaque next to the cell calls Joliet the “last of the Illinois medieval prisons.” It held iron bunk bed frames for mattresses barely wide enough to roll over on. The room was 4 feet wide, 7 feet long and 7 feet high. These cells were in use until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when they were remodeled and replaced.
Just peering in made me want to run in the other direction. Peerbolte said many people have a similar response.
We also visited the cells for solitary confinement, which were a little bigger because, Peerbolte said, prisoners there were allowed outside for only an hour a day. Others spent more of their day at work or in the yard.
In the chapel, a midcentury modern building across the yard, sunlight streamed in through smashed windows and illuminated a roughly hewed altar that was probably built by prisoners. The variety of architectural designs, Peerbolte said, is common as the prison was expanded and improved to meet changing needs over time. The limestone is a constant throughout the prison’s buildings.
The staff has received inquiries from folks representing travel channels and conducting “paranormal explorations,” as well as film crews from various networks, Jones said. Joliet’s minor-league baseball team, the Slammers, filmed a promotional video there. A concert in summer 2018 held on the prison yard drew 3,500 people and raised $137,000. Peerbolte said he’s had inquiries about having a wedding ceremony in the chapel.
(“Think of all the ball-and-chain jokes,” he said.)
Several sections of the prison, including the warden’s quarters, remain off limits.
"People lived and died here. This is a house of pain," said Steve Jones, deputy city manager and economic development manager for the City of Joliet. But it's also one that holds more than a century of history, and served as one of the city's largest employers. "People need to see this place."