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Officials tour shuttered Joliet prison

Nearly 50 government officials and community members toured the shuttered Joliet Correctional Center on Tuesday as part of burgeoning efforts to restore and re-open the prison for tourism. Joliet officials have talked for years about the prison’s tourism potential, but this is the first time so many agencies – from city to the state level – have met on the issue, officials said. State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet, organized the tour of the limestone structure that sits on Collins Street in east Joliet and has been closed since 2002 after about 150 years of operation. The prison housed infamous criminals such as John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck, but also was used as the backdrop of several movies, including “The Blues Brothers.” “I don’t think there is another piece of property like this in the state of Illinois,” Wilhelmi said as the group shuffled through the prison’s courtyard surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire. Vandals have gutted the building of its plumbing and electrical system and paint is peeling off the walls. The ceiling is fallen in some parts and several rooms reek of mold. Rust covers the metals bars of the cells and groundhogs have destroyed the courtyard where there once was a baseball diamond. Dennis Wolff, 58, an ex-warden at the prison, trailed behind the group snapping photos of the rotting cells and trash-strewn rooms. “It’s just sad,” said Wolf, who was warden from 1976-81. “We worked so hard to make this a state-of-the-art facility.” The building, which was designed by the same architect who designed the Water Tower in Chicago, is in such disrepair that this year the state stopped allowing filmmakers shooting inside, said Sharyn Elman, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Environmental remediation and renovations could cost tens of millions of dollars, officials said. Joliet officials, who are facing a $25 million budget deficit next year, have said the project can only happen if they find a public or private entity with which to partner. Marge Franchini, whose family has lived across from the prison since the 1950s and now operates Imperial Roofing at the same corner, said tourists stop by almost daily inquiring about the prison. “I’m just getting really excited about this,” she said.

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