JOLIET – “It’s Never Too Late to Mend,” reads the message on the floor of a cell block in the old Joliet prison.
And it’s not too late to convert the prison into a tourist attraction, according to a man who has played a big role in doing just that at an old Philadelphia prison.
The prison on Collins Street has been falling into disrepair since it was shut down by the state in 2001.
But it looks better – from the outside anyway – than the Eastern State Penitentiary did before it was opened to public visitors in 1994 after being closed for more than 20 years, said Sean Kelley, senior vice president at the historic Philadelphia prison.
“If you look at photos of Eastern State, it looked like a Mayan ruin,” Kelley said.
The Eastern State Penitentiary, built in the 19th century – as was the Joliet prison – attracted 200,000 visitors for prison tours last year. It brings in another 100,000 for a Halloween haunted house, Kelley said.
When asked if it was too late to convert the Joliet prison into a tourist site, Kelley said, “I haven’t seen the inside, but it’s definitely not. A lot of people said it was too late for Eastern State. We’ve proven them wrong.”
From Philadelphia to Joliet
Kelley and Lauren Zalut, director of education and tour programs at Eastern State, were in Joliet on Monday to see the old prison on Collins Street.
They were with Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, who has unsuccessfully tried to penetrate the state bureaucracy for months to initiate tours and preservation efforts at the local prison.
The old Joliet Correctional Center still is the property of the Illinois Department of Corrections, which cuts the grass and does daily security checks. But the prison has been the target of vandals and trespassers.
On Monday, Peerbolte confirmed a stone lion that stood outside the old women’s prison, which is part of the complex but was on the other side of Collins Street, is gone.
“This was a big, concrete lion,” he said. “This was not something that one person could throw in their car. You’d need a crew to get that thing out of here. It’s a shame.”
Peerbolte has developed a list of items he would like to save at the old prison and sent it to the state, but he has received little if any response.
He wanted to take Kelley and Zalut inside the prison walls Monday but had been told that no tours would be considered because the Legislature and governor have not agreed on a state budget.
Visitors from France
Interest in the old Joliet prison was evident just in the half-hour before the guests from Philadelphia arrived.
Three vehicles drove into the visitors parking lot created by the city of Joliet with panel boards that tell the story of the prison. The lot was created because of interest in the prison, to offer visitors such as those who arrived Monday a chance to park and get out and see the place from the outside.
The visitors Monday included Christian Kaspar from France, who was photographing the prison from the parking lot.
“We’re making a Route 66 trip,” said Kaspar, who was with three others from France. “We just left Chicago this morning.”
The prison was their first stop, and Kaspar said he is familiar with the prison’s depiction at the start of the movie “The Blues Brothers.”
‘A stabilized ruin’
Zalut described Eastern State Prison as being in “a state of ruin that we actually operate. It’s a stabilized ruin.”
Tours include school groups. Most of the visitors are in town so see the Liberty Bell and other tourist sites in Philadelphia.
“People from all over the world come to tour our prison,” she said.
The prison closed in 1971 and was opened for public visits in 1994.
Kelley arrived in 1995. At that time, he was the only full-timer with a staff of three tour guides. The budget was $74,000, including Kelley’s salary. Eastern State now has a full-time staff of 20, with another 40 who work part time or seasonally.
In the first years, visitors were given hard hats and had to sign waivers to enter the building, Kelley said.
Ten thousand came the first year, he said.
“It was great to us,” he said. “The second year was 19,000.”
Programs at the prison focus on education, except for the Halloween event. Visitors are surprised at what they learn, said Kelley, who likes to talk with people as they leave.
“Every single person says that it’s way more interesting than what they thought it would be,” he said.