Inside the Big House: The Old Joliet Prison (1858-2002)

Today I visited the Old Joliet Prison, a now-abandoned and famous prison off Illinois Route 171/Archer Avenue in Joliet, IL.

The East entrance to the prison, the same one where Joliet Jake left prison in The Blues Brothers

The Old Joliet Prison is among the most iconic buildings within the City of Joliet. In addition, the city and facility have nearly identical timelines, as the city was incorporated in 1852, while the prison was constructed from 1857-1861, with the first prisoners arriving in 1858.

The Prison as shown on the USGS 1923 topo map. Note the existence of railroad tracks which went through the center of the facility.
It is close in proximity to the old Joliet Iron Works, although on the opposite side of the former Chicago & Alton Railroad tracks. It was likely constructed at its precise location due to its proximity to those tracks, as its first batch of prisoners came from what was the only other penitentiary at the time, Alton Penitentiary, about 300 miles south from here. It was also near limestone quarries which are now full today, providing work for the prisoners to do, and materials for the buildings.

A sign on the inside of the prison showing the quarrying and railroad activity going on.
The prison is iconic within the Chicago area for being a backdrop to numerous movies and TV shows dealing with prison life. As stated earlier, the opening scene of The Blues Brothers was filmed here, as was much of the first season of Prison Break. More recently, an episode of Empire was also filmed here.

Entrance to what was the Warden's quarters, located on the second floor. Offices were on the first floor in this building.
Nearby Stateville eventually replaced the need for the prison, but not for almost 80 years of the two existing simultaneously. It closed down for good in 2002 after nearly 150 years, but outside of filming movies, it was left vacant for nearly 15 years afterwards, attracting vandals, squatters and urban explorers.

It's amazing what just 15 years of neglect looks like. Here is a stairwell in the hospital building. 
Recently, the prison was opened up for tours, but has also had parts of it used for haunted houses in the interim between its use as a prison, and its current use as a tourist attraction.

Inside the East gate. Many buildings were fenced off, either from Arson or neglect, they were unsafe.
The tour began inside the East gate of the prison, where on the left were the cafeteria and commissary areas, and on the right, a mattress factory.

Some buildings look more like warzones.
The prison could be considered a small city in how it was set up. Early in its life, a common mantra was self sufficiency, as the limestone was constructed from nearby quarries, and some prisoners were taught trades, which proved useful in their re-entry into society.
A guard tower.

Part of what was guard offices.
Lots of graffiti. Joliet Historical Society officials are trying to determine how much, if any, of the vandalism should be preserved in the history of this place.

During the tour, most buildings were inaccessible, for obvious reasons. Lots of metal and debris everywhere.

The Central guard tower. It was only accessible via a tunnel system, which often flooded.
The first building we got to see the inside of was the segregation area, or the prison within the prison. Interestingly, this was quite the reprieve from the July sun, it was quite cool inside! I doubt the prisoners interned there had the same positive thoughts about it, however.

Historical image of the inside. Image: Joliet Area Historical Museum.

Ironically, the toilets were some of the cleanest parts of the interior.

These cells made me the slightest bit claustrophobic.  
The tour guide told a story of how two girls on an earlier tour got themselves locked within here, requiring the Fire Department to come rescue them. Apparently, very few keys exist.

This looks like something out of Silent Hill. It should be noted that my flash is on here, the real cell is much darker.

This would make one hell of a haunted house.

Different wardens employed "punishment" or "reform" tactics to the prisoners. This message was painted during one of the reformists' tenures.

Looking up to the second floor. I wonder how many prisoners dreamed of escaping through here.
The electric chair, when the prison was used in executions, was located nearby. However, it was transferred to Stateville sometime in the 1950's, and hasn't been used in decades. Illinois used the lethal injection until 1999, and finally abolished the death penalty for good in 2011.

The next place we visited was easily the scariest, the hospital building. Much of the equipment, including an X-Ray machine and the psych ward, was still on site.

Patient treatment center.

What appeared to be a doctors office.

Another image with my flash off. It was really dark in here.

I have no idea what this is supposed to be.

X Ray machine. Looks like a zombie or nurse could pop out of the shadows at any minute! 
You can tell this was one of the more modern buildings on the campus, at least in the interior.

This was an elevator door. With no power in the building, it would only work if supernatural forces acted upon it. I'll take the stairs.

The rest of the tour consisted of more of the prison's history, including some of the most famous inmates, and a walkthrough of the rest of the buildings on the campus.

Large smokestack in the center of the facility. The grounds were pretty large. It hardly felt like a prison.

This was the exercise facility for those in solitary confinement. Obviously, it was much smaller.

Many scenes in Prison Break were filmed in this gate.

The education center. In the earliest days, prisoners would become literate here. Later, prisoners could earn their G.E.D and, for a short time, even Bachelor's Degrees through Lewis University.

The chapel. Any religion could be practiced here except Voodoo. Originally supposed to be part of the tour, the roof caved in during a storm last fall.

I was able to peek inside. I was amazed by the amount of light that comes in through here.

More exercise courts.

Very few stairwells were accessible.

Looking east toward the exit. Railroad lines used to run inside here, but I wonder if they just transported materials, or if prisoners came via railroad as well.

The west, and more commonly used, exit. 

Another condemned building. I wonder how much loot is in here.

This building looked pretty stable, but other than a peek inside, there wasn't much to see.

View of the outside of the prison.
The Old Joliet Prison is about as unique of a tourist attraction as you can find, and it is full to the brim of history, most of which is more depressing than what the average tourist spot is, but it's nonetheless a tale that needs to be told. Certain things about the conditions, and some of the crimes committed within the prison are noted on the tour, but omitted in this blog.

If you'd rather watch my photos, I made a video collage below.

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. I was an inmate here 6 times. If you'de like to hear from any ex-convict about doing time there, give me a shout.


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