Updated: August 27, 2013 6:14AM
The fire that broke out in the early morning hours Thursday is the latest sign of neglect at the old Joliet Correctional Center, a situation so bad that state agencies appeared confused as to which one was supposed to oversee the property.
Joliet Mayor Thomas Giarrante said he expects more problems at the closed prison on Collins Street unless the state improves security.
“Something’s got to be done,” Giarrante said. “If they don’t put a guard out there, it’s going to keep happening, and it’s going to get worse.”
Officials acknowledge that intruders get into the prison property. There has been speculation that squatters may have been in the building that was the scene of the fire reported at 3:10 a.m. The state fire marshal’s office on Thursday would not comment other than to say the fire remains under investigation.
But Giarrante’s call for a guard to be posted on the site met with immediate resistance.
“It’s prohibitively expensive,” said Tom Shaer, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Security now is provided by Stateville Correctional Center, which sends officers to patrol the outside of the Collins Street prison three times a day. Shaer acknowledged that the patrols do not keep people out of the prison and that corrections officers have gone onto the site at times to chase people out.
Until the fire Thursday, state prison officials thought the ultimate control of the old prison was in the hands of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, the agency that typically takes over vacated state properties.
“We secure the property as best we can,” Shaer said. “We were under the impression that CMS was in charge of the property. Today we learned otherwise. CMS informed the warden (at Stateville) that it is Department of Corrections property. We respect CMS and are happy to help in any way we can.”
Shaer said the Department of Corrections is not in charge of any other vacated properties.
Confusion over who is in charge of the old Joliet Correctional Center is one more sign of how much the property has been left to deteriorate since it was shut down in 2002.
City officials have tried to stir up interest in redeveloping the 19th Century prison structure with its limestone walls and prototypical guard towers. But no project has developed yet. One business person reportedly is interested but would depend on the unlikely investment of state money into redeveloping the site.
Shaer said Navy Seals and Army Special Forces have used the prison for training as well as Joliet police, state police and the Department of Corrections.
In the years immediately following its closing, the prison, which had a famous role in “The Blues Brothers,” had been the site of TV and movie settings.That has not happened for some time, although Shaer said a movie crew and TV team checked out the prison in the last month.
A consultant brought in by the city estimated that it would cost $3.8 million just to stem further deterioration of the structure. The consultant’s report in early 2012 also warned that the structure would rot beyond repair in two to three years if nothing was done.
A spokeswoman for Central Management Services did not return a phone call and email seeking information about the state’s oversight and maintenance of the prison. Shaer said the questions were referred to him, although he could not answer as to whether there is any maintenance at the site other than to say, “The property is unused.”
A walk into the prison Thursday showed no signs of maintenance but did show evidence of intruders. Grafitti had been spray painted onto the walls of a few of the buildings that could be seen in the limited access granted to the building that burned.
The building, a former storage house for mattresses manufactured by prisoners, is located next to the prison wall that runs along Collins Street. It was a fortunate location for the fire, since Joliet firefighters had no access to the inside of the prison for about a half-hour after getting to the scene. They fought the fire from ladders raised over the prison wall and kept it from spreading to two adjacent buidlings.
“Twenty-eight years on the job and this is the first time I’ve had to break into a prison,” Deputy Fire Chief Ray Randich said. “We had keys to the sally port doors, but they were all welded shut.”
Giarrante said he expects the state to give Joliet firefighters and police officers access to the property so they won’t have to wait next time for someone to show up and open a gate, as happened Thursday.
It was the first fire at the Joliet Correctional Center since the 1970s, Randich said. Because of the location of the mattress warehouse, not having immediate access to the inside of the prison was not a problem, he said.
“The building was right up against the wall. It’s not like it was in the center of the property,” Randich said.
But, he said, a fire in the center of the prison would likely have posed more problems. Also, the roof of the building caved in, another stroke of luck, since that made it possible for firefighters to hose down the fire from ladders raised over the prison wall.
It took about three hours to get the fire under control. For most of that time, firefighters had access to the prison and were able to get to hot spots to make sure the fire was extinguished.
Now, the mattress warehouse is a charred wreck with a collapsed wall and roof — one more sign of the deterioration of the prison.
And, while Randich said firefighters were able to control the blaze without immediate access to the prison, he acknowledged the fire department is not likely to count on being so fortunate in the future.
“It will definitely be something that we’ll have to have our operations chief look into in the near future,” he said. “We’ll have to work out a plan.”
Contributing: Sun-Times Media