Digging Deeper into the History of the Old Joliet Prison | The Weekly of Time


The old Joliet Jail along Collins Street has an almost menacing presence and the history behind it is possibly even more sinister.

It is likely that better known under the name of “old prison of Joliet”).

The project is supported in part by a grant from under-represented communities from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Home Office. The National Register Historic District nomination for Illinois State Penitentiary – Joliet is one of 17 projects across the country funded by the National Park Service’s 2020 Under-represented Community Grants program.

The National Park Service’s Under-Represented Community Grants (URC) program strives to diversify the applications submitted to the National Register of Historic Places. Projects include studies and inventories of historic properties associated with communities under-represented in the National Register, as well as the development of National Register nominations for specific sites.

Jayne M. Bernhard, town planner for Joliet City and liaison officer for the Historic Preservation Commission, drafted the grant. She said the 180-acre Illinois State Penitentiary – Joliet is a unique and iconic historic resource for its crenellated Gothic Revival architecture and use of Joliet limestone; for its history as a penal institution; for his infamous former prisoners; and its place in popular culture from cinema, television, literature and song.

“The architecture and design of the Main Penitentiary and the Women’s Prison as well as the philosophies and practices of incarceration and prison reform carried out within its walls and grounds make it an important local, national and national historical resource that must be preserved, ”Bernhard mentioned.

“The penitentiary is also important as a place of conscience in the racial and ethnic history of our country, as minority populations have historically been over-represented in the penal system. The upcoming appointment will specifically detail the role of the penitentiary in racial prejudice, fairness and criminal justice reform – past and present. The information generated by the research and writing of this application will advance the dialogue on these critical societal issues. The penitentiary site can also provide a platform for teaching and discussing these topics.

The Joliet Area Historical Museum has organized various tours and events at the prison, including the recent Bash at the Big House concert.

According to Bernhard, while the grant may seem small, it can be used to secure other grants and help the city move closer to listing the prison on the National Register of Historic Places. This would allow the City to obtain certain tax credits and other subsidy possibilities. The aim, said Bernhard, is to delve deeper into the history of the prison and end up with a “nice working document that will tell the real story behind the prison.”

This will go beyond discussions on the architecture of the prison and deepen the philosophies and practices of incarceration, paying attention to racial prejudices, ”she added.

The Mayor of Joliet, Bob O’Dekirk, said that “the town of Joliet is committed to preserving this important piece of history. We are delighted to see our efforts once again supported by our federal partners through the NPS grant, ”he added.

Will Rachel Ventura County Council (District 9), of Joliet, is a member of the Heritage Corridor Board of Directors who is also running for the Illinois State Senator in the 43rd District. She said while the

prison still resides in Joliet and is in a black and brown community, the dollars generated by tourism could have a positive impact on people living in these areas. These include Forest Park, Fairmont, and the Collins Street neighborhoods.

“There is also a direct correlation between where these dollars could help improve the lives of those affected by incarceration,” Ventura said. “Joliet should deliberately invest the tourist dollars generated by the prison aid events in the neighborhoods around it. “

Bernhard said researching the history of the prison and all the details of its architecture is beyond what she and the Joliet Planning Department can do. The grant will go a long way in securing more money to hire consultants to do this work, she said.

“This will take advantage of other initiatives and projects to both increase awareness of the history of the prison and thus create more educational opportunities so that people can learn more about the prison, beyond its architecture. and that alone is important, ”she said.

“It’s important as an architectural icon – you don’t see such facilities anymore. “

Rex Robinson, Assoc. Editor – [email protected]


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