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Local News

Joliet museum eyes prison's potential and perils

"No trespassing" signs are outside the Collins Street prison Tuesday in Joliet.
"No trespassing" signs are outside the Collins Street prison Tuesday in Joliet.

JOLIET – The Joliet Area Historical Museum is weighing the potential and pitfalls of taking over the old Joliet prison on Collins Street.

It appears that the museum has become the latest hope for local control of the prison, a project once pursued by the city of Joliet.

“We’ve been strategizing a number of ways of how do we do anything with it except what’s happening with the prison now, which is an abandoned property with people breaking in,” museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte said.

Buying the prison would not be difficult, local officials said, because the state would be happy to unload the decaying property. The cost of ownership is another issue.

“If I had my druthers, I’d have the museum take it over,” City Manager Jim Hock said during a recent interview about security issues at the prison. “They can buy it for ten bucks.”

Buying it is one thing. Taking care of the prison is another. In 2014, when the city was looking at limited renovations, the estimated cost of stabilizing buildings was $3.8 million. The museum operates on a limited budget.

Hock talked about the future of the prison after the city recently announced an agreement with the state that enhanced the city’s ability to prosecute charges against trespassers at the site.

Getting that agreement took about a year, an indication of how slow the wheels of government can move at times on matters regarding the prison.

Nothing is expected to happen soon regarding local control of the prison. Its limestone walls and turrets loom over Collins Street as an example of what a prison looked like when the old Joliet Correctional Center took its first prisoners in 1858. The prison closed in 2002.

Its history and appeal as a tourist attraction has drawn the interest of the museum for years. Also, the Forest Preserve District of Will County is interested in open land on the east side of Collins Street that is part of the prison property.

Peerbolte has tried unsuccessfully to work out some sort of arrangement with the state to conduct tours at the prison for Route 66 tourists who want to get behind the walls.

“We do have an interest in this,” Peerbolte said. “I think if money were no object, we would jump at the chance.”

Besides the renovation costs, there are also environmental remediation issues.

The potential liability of taking ownership also is daunting. The prison may be as alluring to trespassers as it is to tourists. When a teen trespasser accidentally locked herself in a cell in January, the city stepped up its efforts to get the prosecution agreement with the state.

Peerbolte said the museum has explored partnership possibilities, where the city would have control of prison security. The city also would be in a better position to obtain grants that could help pay redevelopment costs, he said.

“It’s really taking a lot of creativity and outside-the-box thinking,” Peerbolte said. “People have already talked about, let’s create a nonprofit to take over the prison. Well, we’re already the nonprofit suited to do that.”

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