Short-term and long-term plans are in the works at the Old Joliet Prison, which opened to the public two weeks ago for a second season.
Travelers from as far away as China are making plans to visit the old Joliet Correctional Center this summer. Meanwhile, summers to come could include a forest preserve and park complex, if plans to convert 135 acres of open space that are part of the prison complex ever come to fruition.
Tours started March 16 with strong interest, said Greg Peerbolte, director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
“We still had some ice on the ground at that point,” Peerbolte said. “They [tours] were still full or near full.”
The museum, which conducts the tours, has booked visits later this year for travelers from the U.K., France and other European countries. The museum also has sent 200 tickets to Chinese tour organizers who plan to bring travelers to Joliet this year.
“Presumably, the tours will be done in Mandarin, so their tour guides will be doing the tours,” Peerbolte said.
From what he’s been told, Peerbolte said, many of the Chinese travelers have stopped in Joliet previously to take photographs at the former Joliet Correctional Center and want to come back now that the prison is open to the public. That was accomplished last year after the city signed a five-year, no-rent lease with the state of Illinois, still the owner of the prison and adjoining land.
A number of events, projects and plans are on the agenda this year at the prison on Collins Street:
• A second Great Joliet Prison Break-In on Aug. 24 that could be bigger than the 2018 event that drew 3,500 people;
• A deal in the works with an unnamed national entertainment company to turn the women’s prison on the east side of Collins Street into a new attraction;
• More special events, including a repeat of last year’s disc golf tournament;
• Plans to open a visitors center in a building at the edge of the main prison parking lot;
• Ongoing talks with the Forest Preserve District of Will County and Joliet Park District about the future conversion of acres of undeveloped land into preserve space that could include trails, fishing and softball fields.
The potential creation of forest preserve and playing fields opens a dimension to future use of the state property that has not been widely recognized.
The state property includes 135 acres of open space on the east side of Collins Street – actually the largest section of the 170 acres that comprise the Joliet Correctional Center site.
Future access to the open space likely would require decisions to buy the entire complex, said Ralph Schultz, chief operating officer for the forest preserve district.
The state has not been interested in piecemealing off the property, he said.
“We’re waiting to see how the city wants to proceed,” Schultz said. “We don’t want to own the prison. But if the city is interested in acquiring those parcels, we would acquire the open space parcels.”
The open land includes woods, two quarry lakes and even a scenic bluff that people can view in a drive on the Louise Ray Parkway, which cuts through the site.
“What it has is a really interesting land formation that you don’t see in developed areas,” Schultz said. “There’s a 60-foot bluff that’s visible in those trees on the east side of Louise Ray Parkway.”
The forest preserve could add roads, parking and pavilions that would make the quarry lakes accessible. Whatever happens, however, won’t happen quickly, Schultz said.
“None of us has a bunch of money laying around to realize the plan in two years,” Schultz said. “We all recognize that it is going to take time.”
Case in point is the Joliet Park District, which would take on the task of building and maintaining soccer and softball fields on the prison property.
Voters on Tuesday turned down a park district referendum seeking a property tax increase that park officials said was needed to avert a financial crisis so the district could maintain facilities it has now.
Park District Executive Director Tom Carstens said plans for the prison property would be on a timetable of five to 10 years, adding, “Of course, we couldn’t do anything without additional funding.”
Schultz estimated the timetable for the entire 135-acre project at 20 to 25 years.