‘Dark and damp’: Touring the rusty and decaying cells of Old Joliet Prison

A filming location for ‘Prison Break’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’, the formerly-abandoned fortress was built in 1858 and once housed nearly 2,000 inmates

From 1858 to 2002, the huge complex housed thousands of prisoners. | Photo: Amy Bizzari

As I pass through the old razor wire-topped gate of the abandoned, neo-Gothic Joliet Prison, its long, dark history immediately comes to life. From 1858 to 2002, the huge complex in Joliet, Illinois—with its 24 buildings and surrounding 25-foot-tall limestone wall—housed thousands of prisoners. 

Though many served their time and survived to see the light of day once again—including John Belushi’s character “Joliet” Jake Blues in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers—many others died of diseases born of unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. Others were executed here, by hanging or electrocution. A four-man congressional subcommittee on prison reform urged closing Joliet in 1972. The committee included Illinois State Representative Thomas Railsback, who stated, “It has a medieval air about it … It is dark and it is damp.” But the prison still housed inmates up until 2002, when it was permanently closed; its last prisoners were transferred to Stateville Correctional Center in nearby Crest Hill.

Today, guided tours provide a glimpse into the prison’s complicated history. My group of about 20 is guided by a local docent from the Joliet Area Historical Museum who shares many fascinating stories. The tours offer something for everyone, including history buffs, film enthusiasts, and fans of the paranormal. Although it’s been 30 years since The Blues Brothers came out, several other movies and TV shows were filmed at the prison, including Saw II, Let’s Go to Prison, and Prison Break

Never too late to mend

The first 33 convicts that arrived at Old Joliet Prison, as it’s known today, in May 1858 were tasked with quarrying the yellow-tinged limestone onsite and building the complex that they’d eventually be locked up within. Upon its opening, the Chicago Tribune noted that the prison “will be for many years to come the pride of her citizens.” 

But by 1878, it was bursting at the seams with nearly 2,000 inmates. Overcrowded, violent, and disease-ridden, it belied the motto carved into the stone floor of the first cell block: “It’s Never Too Late To Mend.”   

A Blues Brothers gas pump.
A Blues Brothers gas pump. | Photo: Amy Bizzari
An imposing guard tower.
An imposing guard tower. | Photo: Amy Bizzari

For years after the prison closed it sat abandoned; a steady stream of vandals left graffiti, and fires accelerated the damage. As my tour begins, I feel as if I’m stepping onto a horror movie set. A former medical room is still filled with decrepit equipment, paint curls off the ceiling, and a chapel’s windows remain shattered, the floor strewn with debris. Cell blocks are spray painted with satanic symbols. 

When the guide offers us the chance to stand inside of a rusty cell, I worry for a brief second, as the door swings closed, that I might be locked in. Weeds and other vegetation have tried their best to reclaim the buildings. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it still feels as if one might pop out at any moment during the tour.

Former inmates include Leopold and Loeb, the two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. Richard Speck, the mass murderer who tortured and murdered eight women in 1966, was also housed here; Speck died of a heart attack in Joliet in 1991.

A fraction of the large prison complex.
A fraction of the large prison complex. | Photo: Amy Bizzari

Let’s go to prison

Much of the complex, including the central administrative building, was designed by architect William Boyington. It looks eerily similar to another Chicago icon: the Chicago Water Tower, also designed by Boyington. Another Boyington building in town—Joliet Central High School—was built with the same Joliet limestone. 

There are no museum-like displays within the complex, and many of the buildings exist in an arrested state of decay with obsolete medical equipment, paperwork, and other prison-era debris still strewn about.  

The tour doesn’t shy away from the many dark aspects of the prison, including deadly viral outbreaks worsened by deplorable sanitary conditions, executions, and escapes. During the Civil War, the facility housed Confederate prisoners of war. Hangings and electric chair executions were long conducted onsite, and the gory details are frequently brought up during the tour.

Most of the complex is in a state of decay
Most of the complex is in a state of decay. | Photo: Amy Bizzari
A former hospital
A former hospital. | Photo: Amy Bizzari

One fascinating stop is one of the earliest and smallest cell blocks in the complex. At just 28 square feet, with a ceiling height of 7 feet, the cell once housed three men at a time, with a sanitation system consisting of two buckets—one for water and one for waste. 

While many of the buildings are closed to the public due to dangerous conditions, other buildings are in the process of being restored by volunteers from the local community. 

If you go

The Joliet Area Historical Museum offers a variety of Old Joliet Prison tours, including self-guided, haunted history, and paranormal. Tours are available between March and October and can be booked through the museum website.