Over the weekend, the grounds of the Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street were swarming with metal detectors.
Those working the devices were members of the Will County Historical Research and Recovery Association, and they were on the hunt for historical treasures. The city invited the club members to come in and see whether they could find anything of historical significance to the prison to turn over to the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
“So far, we’re doing pretty good with that,” said Jan Nahorski, a founding member and former president of the WCHRRA. “Metal-detecting equipment has come a long way.”
Nahorski said that by midmorning Saturday, the 40 or so members of the WCHRRA already had found shell casings, a window weight and old pop can tabs. Each member brought their own metal detector, of which the high quality ones could cost anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500.
Nahorski said he suggested to the city that the WCHRRA come out to look for items. He serves as the graffiti abatement officer for the city, so he’s been in the prison multiple times and wanted to help contribute to the effort in some way. The members are dedicated to their hobby, and although they have searched on beaches and in parks before, they jumped at the chance to participate in something this historic.
The WCHRRA members were among the more than 100 people continuing the process over the weekend, including the many volunteers who were there to simply clean up. This came a few weeks after members of the Laborers Local 75 came in to remove and cut down fencing and barbed wire, and do more of the heavy-duty cleanup jobs.
It was part of the continuing cleanup effort to ensure that the old Joliet prison is ready for tours beginning this summer. The city of Joliet gained access to the property after entering into a five-year lease with the state, which owns the prison. The state closed down the prison in 2002.
Now what’s left is to finish up with smaller jobs, such as disposing of nails, glass and other debris, removing cabinets, pallets, and even some old paperwork that has to be sorted through. Quinn Adamowski , vice president of the Joliet Area Historical Museum and co-chairman of the Prison Preservation Coalition, said the response from volunteers was overwhelming.
“This is a project that’s going to take a long time to get completely done,” Adamowski said. “But our priority right now is just making sure that it’s safe for people to be able to walk through.”
People from both inside and outside of the Joliet area came to help clean up.
Colleen Lane grew up in Bolingbrook but now lives in Lombard, and she’s had a longtime interest in the old Joliet prison. So when she heard about this project, she said she called Mayor Bob O’Dekirk and signed up to volunteer.
“There’s a feeling that you get when you’re here that is indescribable,” she said. “[The prison] keeps bringing us back.”
It was an especially cool opportunity to enter the prison for one local – Scott Lewandowski, who is a lifelong Joliet resident and an auxiliary police officer.
“I thought it was excellent, the fact that the Joliet area is willing to invest in this and try to use it as a resource instead of just sitting here and letting it rot,” Lewandowski said. “So definitely a good deal.”
Lewandowski added that he had never had the opportunity to be in the prison before, so he jumped at the opportunity, even if that meant getting up early on a Saturday morning to pick up some garbage.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to come together,” he said. “And put their efforts behind something and kind of make a good out of a bad, if you will.”