The prison in Joliet replaced the first state penitentiary in Alton, built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in 1831. The privately managed Alton prison quickly degraded into a state of horrendous conditions. Dorothea Dix, a noted champion for prison and asylum reform personally petitioned the Illinois General Assembly to construct a new penitentiary after inspecting the Alton prison in 1847.
May 22, 1858 marks the “beginning” of the Joliet Prison when fifty-three prisoners arrived at a small structure, which still stands, to begin the work of constructing the larger prison around themselves. This included the quarrying of limestone from the vein which runs through Will County just a few hundred feet from the prison.
Upon its opening, the Chicago Tribune declared glowingly, “We came away fully impressed with the belief that the important trusts at Joliet are in good hands, that there is growing a State work which will be for long years to come the pride of her citizens.”
The image of the Joliet Prison, however, quickly changed. Just twenty years later, in 1878, the Prison was filled well over capacity with nearly 2,000 inmates. Reports of unsanitary and dangerous conditions emerged. By 1905, calls for the closure of the “old prison” were made.
The 1926 construction of Stateville Penitentiary, just a few miles north of Old Joliet Prison in what is now Crest Hill was intended to close the prison, but Old Joliet Prison continued to house offenders until 2002, when it was closed by Governor George Ryan as a budgetary measure.
Upon closing, the prison sat abandoned. In addition to normal deterioration that plagues empty buildings, it was subject to rampant vandalism, including arson. Attempts were made to find suitable options for reuse by the Collins Street Task Force of concerned public and private leaders. These efforts were stalled by the Great Recession of 2008. Continued vandalism and destruction of the site led Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk to personally petition the state government to allow the City of Joliet to take control of the property in December of 2017.
Since then, the city looked to the Joliet Area Historical Museum to take a leadership role in saving and preserving the site. Museum and community stakeholders formed a public/private partnership entity, The Old Joliet Prison Preservation Coalition. The organization’s goals of stabilizing the buildings and opening the site to the public have been met with an enthusiastic response from the community of Joliet. To Date, nearly 15,000 volunteer hours, one million dollars in in-kind labor and donations, and over ten million dollars in funds have been raised to benefit the site, and thousands of visitors have experienced the prison in person.
True to its historic and notorious legacy, the Old Joliet Prison now takes it rightful place as an authentic, unique asset which is inextricably linked to the history of Joliet, the state of Illinois, and people impacted by crime and punishment. It continues to draw interest from visitors all around the world.