Joliet Correctional Center — aka “Joliet Prison” — opened in 1858 and was operational for more than a century and a half. Located in Joliet, Illinois, the facility was originally known as the Illinois State Penitentiary.
It often gets confused with the nearby Stateville Correctional Center — located in Crest Hill, Illinois — which operated alongside Joliet Prison for decades. Even though the original intention was to close down Joliet when Stateville opened in 1925.
Over the years, Joliet housed some notorious criminals. But what made it famous was its regular appearance in pop culture. Today’s blog post is all about the Joliet Prison. Keep reading because I’m going to answer the question — can you visit Joliet Prison?
In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- The history of Joliet Prison
- Joliet Prison in Pop Culture
- Can you visit Joliet Prison?
The History of Joliet Prison
Joliet Correctional Center opened in 1858 — just six years after the City of Joliet was incorporated. It was built with convict labor leased by the state of Illinois to contractor Lorenzo P. Sanger and warden Samuel K. Casey.
Ever since it opened, the prison has been synonymous with the town, and its gothic architecture has become iconic. It was designed by one of Chicago’s earliest architects, W. W. Boyington, who also designed the Chicago Water Tower. The trademark of his design was the use of limestone that was quarried on site.
The Joliet Prison replaced Illinois’ first state penitentiary in Alton, which was built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in 1831. It was a privately-managed prison with horrendous conditions that caught the eye of noted reformer Dorothea Dix. After she personally petitioned the state’s General Assembly to construct a new prison, the project in Joliet began.
The first inmates arrived at Joliet on May 22, 1858, with a total of 53 in all. They started working on constructing the larger prison around themselves. The original building plans at Joliet included a one-hundred cell, “Female Cell House,” that was located inside the men’s penitentiary. From 1859 to 1870, female inmates were housed adjacent to the men’s cells.
The women were eventually moved to the fourth floor of the central administration building. In 1896, the one-hundred cellblock, “Joliet’s Women’s Prison,” was built across the street as a mini-replica of the men’s facility, and the female inmates were moved out of the Joliet Prison completely.
In 1933, the female inmates were moved out of the Joliet Women’s Prison and transferred to the Oakdale Women’s Reformatory (later the Dwight Correctional Center) and the women’s prison was turned into a facility for male inmates.
By 1878, the population of the Joliet Prison had grown to nearly 2,000. As the women got moved around and then eventually out, reports of unsanitary and dangerous conditions at Joliet started to emerge in the early 1900s.
Calls for the closure of the “old prison” soon began, which led to the construction of the Stateville Penitentiary in Crest Hill, (intended to close down Joliet Prison). However, the Joliet Prison remained operational until 2002. Governor George Ryan closed the facility nearly 150 years after it opened due to budgetary issues.
Notable inmates who were housed at Joliet Prison included Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Joseph Gillis (aka Babyface Nelson).
Joliet Prison in pop culture
Joliet Prison is best known for its numerous appearances in popular culture. Most notably, the prison shows up in the beginning of the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, when “Joliet Jake” Blues is released from the facility. It was also used for exterior shots and played the Illinois “state prison” in the James Cagney film, White Heat.
For the first season of Fox’s Prison Break, Joliet Prison was used as the show’s filming location and referred to as Fox River State Penitentiary. Joliet Prison was also a filming location for the movies, Derailed, Let’s Go To Prison, and the TV show, Empire.
Can you visit Joliet Prison?
After the prison closed in 2002, it was severely damaged due to the elements and rampant vandalism. Including several acts of arson. The city of Joliet petitioned the Illinois state government to take over the property in 2017. Since then, the city has been working with the Joliet Area Historical Museum to turn the old prison into a tourist attraction. So yes, you can visit Joliet Prison!
As of 2022, there are regular tours at the Old Joliet Prison. You can opt for a self-guided tour which lasts for approximately 90 minutes and costs $20 per adult and $10 per child. The guided history tours at the facility are led by a certified museum guide and cost $30 per person.
Guard tours are led by former prison employees and can have a maximum of eight participants. These tours are for guests 16 and older and cost $40 per person.
Haunted History Tours at the Old Joliet Prison include true stories of some of the prison’s most notorious residents. A haunted history tour costs $30 per person, but there is no ghost hunting or any paranormal activities.
Finally, the photography tour at Old Joliet Prison is for amateur and professional photographers who are allowed to bring their tripods and wander the grounds. A photography tour of the facility costs $50 per person.
In the gift shop, you’ll find pieces of Joliet history and Route 66 memorabilia. There are numerous keepsakes available, like exclusive Blues Brothers tees, prison knit caps, hoodies, hats, and coffee table books.
The tour schedule is regularly updated on the Old Joliet Prison website. There is updated information for special events. For example, in 2021 they did a screening of Blue Brothers at the Old Joliet Prison yard.
If you’d like more information about tours at the Old Joliet Prison, you can visit the Joliet Area Historical Museum website or call 815-723-5201.
Have you ever visited the Old Joliet Prison? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments below.
Sources: Old Joliet Prison Official Website https://www.jolietprison.org/