Mayor Says Old Joliet Prison ‘Becoming A Problem’ After Raging Fire

CHICAGO (CBS) — A raging fire at the shuttered Joliet Correctional Center on Monday has renewed questions about what should be done with the site.

The fire started in an industrial building at the old prison, and it burned for at least a couple of hours before firefighters got it under control around 10 p.m. Monday. The roof caved in as a result of the blaze.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said two men seen coming out of the prison as firefighters arrived were taken into custody by Joliet police.

A building at the long-shuttered Joliet Correctional Center went up in flames on May 29, 2017.

A building at the long-shuttered Joliet Correctional Center went up in flames on May 29, 2017. (courtesy: Joliet Fire Department/FACEBOOK)

O’Dekirk said it was the second fire inside the old prison in the last few years. The facility has been closed since 2002, after being in operation for 144 years.

The shuttered prison is owned by the state of Illinois, but O’Dekirk said there is a proposal before the Joliet City Council to purchase the property so it can be rehabbed or possibly torn down and used as a quarry, because it has fallen into disrepair.

“There’s been talk, some talk about leveling the property and using it as a quarry. We don’t have a real hard idea of what we’re going to do,” he said.

The mayor said it’s “just a matter of time” before there is a tragic accident at the shuttered prison.

“When something goes wrong, it’s either Joliet police or Joliet fire that has to go in and clean up the mess. You know, it’s not our property. It’s becoming a problem,” he said.

In January, two teenage girls made their way through or around a fence at the old prison, and snuck inside. One of them managed to get locked inside a cell, and her friend called for help. They were charged with trespassing.

As for the future of the prison, another idea that has been put forth by the Joliet Historical Museum is to offer tours of the prison and use money generated from the tours to pay for cleaning up the site, O’Dekirk said.

The old prison has been used for a number of film and TV projects, including the Fox series “Prison Break,” the 2009 film “Public Enemies,” about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, and the 2006 comedy “Let’s Go to Prison.”

Perhaps most famously, and long before its closure, it was seen at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, as “Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) walks out of the prison.

Joliet Historical Museum executive director Greg Peerbolte said people express interest in tours of the old prison almost every day.

“There’s just a huge international interest in it, from the Blues Brothers film, and we have a large core of international visitors who are traveling Route 66,” he said.

While a study has suggested it would cost $3.8 million to “remediate” seven buildings, he believes “basic stabilization” of the buildings would cost much less.

“That’s something with minimal financial resources we can get in there, and board up some of the buildings, make sure the paths are walkable, make sure the grass is cut, make sure the holes in the ground are fixes and that there’s just basic monitoring and securing of the building,” he said.

Peerbolte said he does not think anyone wants to run a “bed and breakfast out of there, a restaurant out of there,” any time soon.

Officials said no one was injured in the fire. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street is a separate facility from Stateville Correctional Center in nearby Crest Hill.

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