The first public tour of the old Joliet prison Tuesday included six travelers who put the prison on an itinerary of things to do while visiting or passing through Joliet.
“When I was looking for things to do while I was here, I saw you had the Great Joliet Prison Break-In,” said Tami Boné, referring to the Saturday grand opening she did not attend.
But the visitor from the Detroit area was among 18 people on the first of the tours that the Joliet Area Historical Museum leads three times a week.
Tour guide Audra Kantor, at the beginning of the tour, offered a glimpse into the prison’s history as a setting for movies and TV shows, noting they were starting at the east sally port because Fox TV was using the typical first stop for the filming of “Empire.”
“That helps tell the history of this prison,” Kantor said. “A lot of famous movies and TV shows have been filmed at this prison.”
The east sally port, in fact, was in the opening scene of “The Blues Brothers,” Kantor said.
About 90 minutes long, the tour tells the history of the Joliet Correctional Center from its construction in 1858 to today. Kantor begins by telling of 53 state prisoners transferred from Alton to Joliet in the 1850s.
“Their job was to serve their sentence here as well as build this prison,” Kantor said.
The tour includes stops outside buildings throughout the prison and brief visits inside a few buildings safe enough to enter, including the North Segregation building with the well-known words “It’s never too late to mend” painted on the floor.
“Oh my gosh, I would never want to be here,” Mayra Zavala of Joliet said aloud to herself as she looked into one of the cramped cells of the building used for solitary confinement.
Zavala said she found many things “amazing” from the tour, including the fact that anyone could escape from it. She was on the tour with her mother, Alicia Zavala, who remembers her fears when a prisoner escaped decades ago.
The tour for many of the visitors provided a look at the harshness of prison life.
“Did anyone die just from being in there?” Valerie Boris of Oxford, Massachusetts, asked Kantor when the visitors all were invited to take a close look inside a cell from what is described in a 1951 plaque as the “last of the Illinois medieval prisons.”
The cell is a remnant from the Joliet Correctional Center before the 1951 remodeling that provided inmates more space to inhabit.
There were 900 cells before the rehab with maximum capacity, which in some years was more than 2,000, Kantor said.
“I’ll let you do the math to figure out we were a little overpopulated,” she told the group.
After 1951, there were 646 cells with average capacity being between 900 and 1,000 in larger cells.
The pre-1951 cell, Kantor said, is 7 feet long, 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall. It contained the steel frame of a bunk bed. She asked the visitors to imagine two buckets that also would have been in the cell – one for water and one for “waste.” The first indoor plumbing for prisoners was installed in 1956.
Boris and her husband visited the prison with another couple from Greensboro, North Carolina, on their way back from a trip out west.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Jerry Anderson of Greensboro said of the tour. “It’s part of history. They need to preserve it.”