The beautiful neo-Gothic prison compound of Joliet Correctional Center stands abandoned and decaying after operating for nearly a century and a half.
Surrounded by 25-foot-high limestone walls topped with razor wire, Joliet Correctional Center covers 20 acres of land. The once self-sustaining compound consists of 24 buildings, including guard towers, cell blocks, administration buildings, light industrial facilities, a hospital, laundry, cafeteria, chapel and gymnasium. After years of neglect and vandalism, many of the structures are severly deteriorated.
The History of Joliet Correctional Center
Opened in 1858, just six years after the incorporation of the City of Joliet, the Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet, now known simply as the Old Joliet Prison. The Joliet Correctional Center is the oldest of Illinois’ four maximum security facilities. Thirty-three inmates were first received at Joliet in May 1858. Joliet Correctional Center was built partly due to the overcrowding of the prison at Alton the states first prison, which closed in 1860.
It held prisoners of war during the Civil War and, by 1872, held more inmates than any prison in the country. In December 1872, Joliet had an inmate population of 1,239 making it the largest prison in the United States, a distinction it held for several decades.
By 1878, the Prison was filled well over capacity with nearly 2,000 inmates. Reports of unsanitary and dangerous conditions emerged and by 1905, calls for the closure of the “old prison” were made. Conditions were bleak. The prison lacked running water and in-cell toilets until 1910.
It welcomed “crime of the century” perpetrators Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924, and saw an inmate murdered by members of a street gang during 1975 riots. Richard Speck, the mass murderer who tortured and murdered eight women in 1966, was also housed here; Speck died of a heart attack in Joliet in 1991.
The 1926 construction of Stateville Penitentiary in what is now Crest Hill was intended to close the prison, but it continued to house offenders until 2002, when it was finally closed by Governor George Ryan as a budgetary measure.
The iconic Gothic architecture of the new prison was designed by Chicago’s W.W. Boyington, who also designed the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue. The next time you walk past it, you can see some of the similarities between both buildings.
Historical Photos of Joliet Prison
Most of the complex is in surprisingly good shape, though one of the buildings was heavily damaged by arson in 2017. Joliet Correctional Center has been featured in several movies, including The Blues Brothers and Let’s Go to Prison. Since its abandonment, it served as the setting for Season One of the T.V. show Prison Break and an episode of Bones.
The prison was also mentioned in songs, including “Percy’s Song” by Bob Dylan, “Joliet Bound” by Memphis Minnie, and “Lincoln Park Pirates” by Steve Goodman.
Stunning Photos of Joliet Correctional Center
Thick blankets of ivy cover the walls and fences of the Joilet prison. The grounds are overgrown with weeds that have pushed up through the cracked pavement.
The abandoned prison compound itself is not open to the public, but the parking lot has been transformed into the Old Joliet Prison Park. Visitors can enjoy a view of the castle-like main structure and read about the prison’s history on a handful of informational signs.
Is the Joliet Correctional Center doing tours?
Joliet Correctional Center guided tours are offered via the Joliet Area Historical Museum for select areas of the Prison “campus” from the months of April – October. Walking tours last approximately 90 minutes.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum took a leadership role in operating tours at the site. Over the course of 1.5 hours, you will be able to freely walk the site on a designated path via Self-Guided Prison Tour.