City of Joliet changes its attitude about prison heritage

Prison town image gets new respect

JOLIET – It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when city leaders considered Joliet’s prison a taboo subject.

Today, the old Joliet prison is the talk of the town, with plans to open a haunted house by Halloween, efforts underway to start tours in the summer, and the city hinting at more to come.

“That’s a hot piece of property,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said of the old prison when delivering his State of the City speech earlier this month.

In the 1990s and pre-recession 2000s, Joliet was on the rise, with casino gambling, NASCAR racing and a housing boom that put it on the chart with some of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. However, city officials, Chamber of Commerce leaders and residents wanted to set the tone for the future by downplaying the prison that was viewed throughout the Chicago region and across the country as synonymous with the town.

“When I first came to the Chamber, it was like we were absolutely trying to get rid of that image,” said Mary Jaworski, president of the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Now, 25 years later, we have a whole new ballgame going on. It’s very exciting. It’s our heritage.”

At the Chamber’s monthly luncheon last week, the presentation was “Never Too Late to Mend: Presentation on the Past, the Current Situation, and the Future Plan of the Old Joliet Prison.”

Interest in the presentation is high, Jaworski said.

“I think everybody wants to hear what’s going on,” she said.

‘Going to Joliet’

The prison on Collins Street – officially the Joliet Correctional Center – has been closed since 2002.

But the prison and its iconic limestone walls have been part of the city since it opened in 1858. Its proximity to the notorious crime world of Chicago and movie references that predate film noir have given Joliet a name recognized across the U.S. and beyond.

It might be that some people have grown fonder of the prison as a historical relic than they were when it was a vital part of the city – providing jobs while also bringing in some of the worst criminals in Illinois for what could be a lifetime stay in Joliet.

The phrase “going to Joliet” had an ominous tone back in the day.

“My grandmother used to tell us when we were kids, ‘If you don’t straighten up, we’re taking you to Joliet,’ ” Bill Waliewski said.

Waliewski, who grew up in Clarendon Hills, must have remembered his grandmother’s warnings when he was president of a group that was taking over the professional Joliet baseball franchise in 2010.

After a meeting with city officials that finalized the terms of the lease for the Joliet-owned stadium, Waliewski jokingly announced that they already had picked a name – the Joliet Jailbirds.

“The reaction was, ‘We’ve kind of shied away from the prison, but we’re looking at easing back a little bit,’ ” Waliewski said. “That sort of opened the door.”

Slammers and JackHammers

When the new team announced its name, it was the Joliet Slammers.

The Slammers replaced the Joliet JackHammers, whose owners never considered a prison theme when they started the team in 2002, said Joliet attorney Michael Hansen, who was CEO of the organization.

“We were discouraged by the city from using any such type of image,” Hansen said. “The (team) owners at the time didn’t want that type of image either. It never really was considered.”

City Council member Michael Turk, who grew up in Joliet and was a council member through the prison taboo years, said the prison “kind of put Joliet on the map.”

If you traveled out of state and said you were from Joliet, Turk said, people usually knew about your town because of the prison. But it wasn’t necessarily the kind of reputation that was good for selling the city as a place to raise a family or do business, when Joliet looked to grow in the 1990s.

“I think way back when the prison was active [and] it had kind of a negative connotation with inmates coming here and their reputation,” Turk said. “Then some good things started to develop. I think people said ‘Let’s focus on the good things.’ ”

The city might have been a destination point of sorts when the Joliet Correctional Center was taking inmates. But Joliet promoters wanted to emphasize casino gambling, NASCAR racing and the new subdivisions that were being built.

The new view

The city now hopes the empty prison can become a destination point again in the same way that other cities have been able to turn prisons into tourist attractions. Turk mentioned his own trip to San Francisco, where a tour of Alcatraz was a highlight of the visit.

The Joliet Area Historical Museum wants to get the Joliet Correctional Center ready for tours.

“I just got off the phone literally five minutes ago with someone from Waubonsee (Community) College,” Joliet Area Historical Museum Director Greg Peerbolte said in a phone interview last week.

The caller runs group tours and was asking when the prison would be open for visitors.

Peerbolte has been one of the leaders in the effort to turn the prison into a visitors’ site, having heard from tourists from around the world as they stop in Joliet as part of a Route 66 vacation and want to see the prison.

He began hearing stories about the prison “from day one” after arriving as the museum’s director in 2012.

“About a month in, I drove over to the prison and looked around. I was fascinated by the property,” he said.

By that time, the prison taboo had worn off. But Peerbolte said he believes there always was a “silent majority” that never shied away from the city’s prison heritage.

When the Slammers held a contest for fans to pick their new name, the “overwhelming favorite” was Joliet Jailbirds, Waliewski said, but the team thought it was better to honor the guards than the inmates.

Jaworski remembers as a little girl being scared when she would hear news of an escape from the Joliet Correctional Center. But when the city was suppressing its prison past, she said, “I felt kind of bad about it.”

“I didn’t see it as being a shadow. I saw it as part of who we are,” Jaworski said.

Now she’s glad to be around as the cycle turns and Joliet promotes its prison heritage.

“Who’d have thought
25 years ago we’d be cheering on this effort?” Jaworski said. “I think it’s really cool.”

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