Famous Inmates at Joliet Prison

Over the years, many notable inmates have spend the time at the century old Joliet Prison.

One of them was notorious bank robber Lester Joseph Gillis. Gillis was commonly known as Baby Face Nelson due to his small stature and juvenile appearance. Nelson started his life in crime in his early teens, involving himself in various misdeeds from bootlegging to armed robbery. After an armed robbery on the Itasca State Bank in 1931, Nelson was caught and sentenced to one year to life in Joliet Correctional Center. However, Nelson managed to escape in February 1932 while being transported to Wheaton, Illinois to stand trial for another bank robbery charge.

Lester Gillis Baby Face Nelson mugshot
Baby Face Nelson, Lester Gillis | Image credits: Federal Bureau of Investigation

In 1934, Nelson partnered up with legendary gangster John Dillinger. The duo and their gang would go on to rob several banks across states in the Midwest. For a period, Nelson was labelled by U.S. President J. Edgar Hoover as Public Enemy No. 1. On November 27, 1934, Nelson was fatally shot in a shootout with the FBI agents.

Leopold and Loeb photo
Leopold and Loeb | Image credits: Chicago Tribune

The infamous killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb have also served their time at the Old Joliet Prison. The duo, both wealthy students from the University of Chicago, were infamously known for committing the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks. It was reported that the duo spent up to seven months to plan the entire murder, from the method of abduction to the disposal of the body. Leopold and Leob supposed perfect, motiveless murder of Franks was then dubbed “crime of the century” by many. However, it was exposed after a glasses belonging to Leopold was found near the body. On September 10, 1924, the duo was sentenced to life imprisonment at Joliet Prison. They would go on to revamp the prison’s education system, adding a high school and junior college curriculum to help inmates seeking for a tertiary education.

Other famous inmates who have once called Joliet Prison home include serial killer and sex offender John Wayne Gacy, James Early Ray (assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr), and mass murderer Richard Speck.

History of Joliet Prison

Opened in 1858, Joliet Correctional Center (also known as Illinois State Penitentiary or Joliet Prison) was built to replace Illinois first penitentiary in Alton. To facilitate the building of the prison, local contractors and convicts were hired. To speed up construction, limestone was quarried from the adjacent quarries as building materials. The first batch of inmates arrived from Alton to help with the construction of Joliet Prison. By July 1960, most of the prison’s facilities were completed.

old joliet prison
Old Joliet Prison | Image credits: Daily Journal

In 1896, an exact mini-replica of Joliet Prison was built right across the street to house female prisoners. It became known as “Joliet Women’s Prison”. However, in 1933, all the female prisoners were relocated to the Dwight Correctional Center (also known as Oakdale Reformatory for Women); Joliet Women’s Prison was revamped into a secondary facility for the all-male Joliet Prison.

The completion of the new Stateville Correctional Center in March 1925 prompted the shutdown of the older Joliet Prison that was in a state of disrepair. However, the two prisons continued to operate in concert for the rest of the 20th century.

The prison would go on to add several buildings to accommodate the growing population and improve the living standards of the inmates. These include a hospital, cafeteria, chapel, gymnasium and several industrial facilities that exported goods such as mattresses and

Old Joliet Prison
Confinement cells at old Joliet Prison | Image credits: Chicago Tribune

By 1990, the number of inmates at Joliet Prison peaked at 1,300, causing a huge strain on the resources.

In 2002, after 144 years of operation, the historic Joliet Prison was ordered to be shut down by then Illinois Governor George Ryan as part of a series of budgetary measures to cut down state’s spending. As the state second oldest prison, its poor condition was also cited as one of the reasons to close down the facility. Most of the inmates and staff were transferred Stateville Correctional Center.

The Blues Brothers

Joliet Prison is famously known for being the filming location of John Landis’s 1980 music comedy film The Blue Brothers. The film revolves around two brothers, Jake and Elwood Blues (played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd respected), and their “mission from god” to save a Roman Catholic orphanage which they grew up in from foreclosure.

Old Joliet Prison blue brothers
Movie scene in The Blues Brothers | Image credits: Daily Mail

The worldwide success of The Blue Brothers have put Chicago in the limelight, with many subsequent films being shot in the city. However, the film’s sequel Blue Brothers 2000, was a commercial failure, grossing only $14 million against a budget of $30 million.

Since then, Joliet Prison have appeared in several other films and documentaries including Derailed (2005), Let’s Go to Prison (2006), as well as the critically acclaimed Prison Break and Discovery+ Ghost Adventures.

Ghosts of Joliet Prison

Due to its longstanding history and violent past, many who visits Joliet Prison claimed that spirit of those who have served here have never left. In particular, it is said that the ghost of serial killer John Wayne Gacy continues to reside in the prison. Visitors of the prison have reported several paranormal happenings including disembodied voices, dark figures in the cell rooms, and unexplainable noises.

In 1915, the wife of a warden was killed on the second floor of the administration building where the family lived. In spite of the lack of evidences, an inmate named Chicken Joe Campbell was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Today, it is said that the spirit of the warden’s wife continues to linger along the hallways of the administration building

The prison was also featured on Discovery+ Ghost Adventures where the team attempts to find the spirit of John Wayne Gacy.

The supposed ghostly activities have spurred the keepers of the prison to conduct several paranormal tour including the Ghost Hunt 101 Tour and the Paranormal Investigation Tour.

Is Joliet Prison Open?

As of October 2021, the Old Joliet Prison is opened to the public for visits. Visitors can visit the historic site via a tour conducted by Joliet Area Historical Museum. Some of the tours offered include the

Historical Tour, the Haunted History Tour, the Guard Tour, and the Paranormal Investigation Tour. Book your tickets here.

Since its closure in 2002, attempts have been made to restore the prison and convert it to a local attraction and museum. Such efforts was hastened by the rampant trespassing vandalism that have been happening. In August 2017, an arson at the prison caused massive damage to many of the buildings.

This prompted Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekrik to make a concerted effort to prevent any further destruction to the buildings. In December 2017, the City of Joliet secured a five-year intergovernmental lease on the Old Joliet Prison. A partnership with Joliet Area Historical Museum led to a restoration of a handful of buildings in the prison. In 2018, Old Joliet Prison opened its doors to the public. A community-based entity named The Old Joliet Prison Preservation Coalition was also formed to oversee the preservation of the site and the running of tours.

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