Former Illinios Prison a Possible Tourist Attraction

ChicagoTribune: A massive limestone prison featured in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers" might have a future as a tourist destination if money can be found to renovate the structure, which has been shuttered and decaying for almost a decade, Joliet officials said.

The infamous Joliet Correctional Center already draws people from around the world who want a peek inside, a local tourism official said, but repairs and environmental remediation could cost tens of millions of dollars.

"I don't think there is another piece of property like this in the state of Illinois," state Sen. A. J. Wilhelmi, a Joliet Democrat, said during a tour he organized this week for almost 50 state and local officials and activists.

The group met afterward to talk about revitalizing the infamous prison, located along the old Route 66, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday.

The Joliet prison opened in the 1850s, and inmates helped build the thick walls of limestone from local quarries. But since it closed in 2002, it has been left largely neglected and the target of vandals. Even so, there is plenty of interest in the prison, which has 25-foot-high walls lined with barbed wire, officials said.

Dozens of requests are made each month from filmmakers, photographers, prison buffs and family members of former prison employees who want to tour the facility, the Chicago Tribune reported for a story in Friday editions. And tourists from around the world stop by each year, said Tony Contos, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum.

"(Tourists) are mesmerized by that thing," Contos said. "I think it's just the idea of what's behind those walls."

Other prisons have become successful museums, including Alcatraz in San Francisco and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

But the Joliet prison is in rough shape, and it could cost tens of millions of dollars to fix it up, officials said. There is mold, some ceilings have fallen in and thieves have ripped out plumbing and electrical systems. There also are environmental issues, including asbestos and a contaminated former garbage dump and firing range, said Elmo Dowd, associate director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said the agency supports the project but the state can't contribute money right now. And IDOC spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said state officials are open to parting with the surplus property.

But the city -- facing a $25 million deficit for next year -- probably would not take possession without money for upgrades, said spokesman Ben Benson.

"If this was five, 10 years ago, maybe we would have a few more dollars to lend," Benson said. "But right now it would be hard to appropriate necessary funds to rehab and operate a facility like that when we have our own operating challenges."


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