Focus Trek 23-Old Joliet Prison

Report # Photo:

Back on the horse, so to speak. I haven’t done a Focus Trek since Dec 2021. I’ve just been a little busy, I guess. It’s not that I haven’t gone anywhere scenic, I have, I just was distracted a bit. Today is a trip through the Old Joliet Prison, free to roam through the complex before they start regular tours for the year. I did this with Orlando Gonzolez who brings like-minded urban explorers together to cool abandoned places. Search for the group Lakes Urbex Excursions on Facebook to get in on some of the action.

20170711 203259-round

My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter -> @BurnhamArts 

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
— Jim Morrison


The Old Joliet Prison was designed by W.W. Boyington, who also designed the iconic Chicago Watertower. You’ll recognize the castle-like appearance and use of “Joliet Limestone” throughout. It was finished in 1858, not too long after the town of Joliet was incorporated into Illinois. It replaced a dilapidated structure in Alton, IL on a Mississippi River clifftop. 53 inmates were housed in the original prison below before starting construction of the larger facility around them. Even newly painted and clean, it probably was just as depressing, despite the pastoral scene painted on the opposite wall.

But what I found more interesting than the accommodations was the construction, all probably novel inventions at the time to close or open all jail cell doors at the same time across 30 or more rooms on each level. A single crank, later augmented with electric power, was turned by hand and geared so that you saw “Open”, “Key”, or “Deadlock” appear on the spinning identifier. My interpretation of it was if set to “Deadlock”, all the doors were locked. Once you turned the crank to “Key”, you had to use a key to get it to the “Open” spot. Or course, I turned the crank, and I did hear some squeaking in the doors down the hall. I probably shouldn’t touch stuff.

It’s inevitable in a place like this, with dark corners and creepy vibes, that you get the shit scared out of you, intentionally or unintentionally. On one occasion, I walked out of a cell hallway and peered over a stairway railing. After deciding there were too many people down there already, I turned to go back only to see one photographer silently crouched down in the shadows. I’m not sure how loud I swore or how far I leaped, but I certainly amused him. I got my revenge later as I followed a couple in broad daylight to an entrance door. One of them stopped to take a photo and as I passed him, he jumped a mile never knowing that I was four feet behind them the whole time.

I’m not sure why vandals target fuse panels. I think the order of the whole thing makes them angry and they just need to create a mess. Or maybe they know someone like me will come along and ooh and ahh their artistic creation. It’s chaos, but it’s guided chaos, restricted by the simple connections within the case itself. It’s like being a prisoner, held in place by chains and metal covers, then someday getting caught in the middle of a prison riot.

Who was the last person to sit in this chair? Hint, it wasn’t me. In 1910, there was no running water or toilets in the cells. In 1925, the Stateville Prison opened which was supposed to replace Joliet Prison, but both stayed open through the 20th Century.

Graffiti is always very pervasive in these places. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s annoying. Sometimes, it’s simple and artistic.

The layers of paint reflect years of updates and change, some good, some questionable.

Very old-school bars adorn the entrance to the Administration building.


Razor wire is nothing to mess with. Imagine these pin-sharp spikes going into your skin on one side, piercing through, and coming out on another side. And it’s likely a bit corroded, making your open wounds infected. Don’t mess with razor wire.

I assume from the placement of these phones on the wall that there was a bench in front of them. Or, the prisoners just sat on the ground. One is lower than the other two, so it’s curious why the difference.

The prison has been plagued by several arson fires in the last 10 years, most notably by a 15-year-old in 2017. A couple of the buildings are currently a total loss and still have the remnants of the charred timbers, desks, and file cabinets. Not likely this old hydrant was in working order at the time.

The irony behind needing to leave the cooler on inside the “cooler” was not lost on me.


The phrase etched into the floor of the original prison building, “It’s never too late to mend” was in the closing photo montage in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. The prison was the set for a few big movie and TV productions like TBB and Prison Break. Even back then, there was a bend toward rehabilitating prisoners, and it still should be today.

When I started writing this, I was sitting in a bar on the shores of Lake Weir in Central Florida. It’s an area of immense wealth and privilege, peppered with people just living day to day. As I finish this, I am in Leland MI, which I could also describe the same way. I can only imagine what being incarcerated in a place like this was like at the time, and feel fortunate that it’s only in my imagination.

What did I learn?

  1. Even if there is no sign saying not to touch something, it doesn’t mean you can touch it. But let’s be honest, a crank is a crank.
  2. I’ve done so many DIY projects, I caught myself critiquing the paint job in a jail cell.
  3. I won’t get caught, I’m on a mission from God.

Thanks for reading. If you made it this far, congratulations! Please like and share or comment and share or pass it on and share using the social links below. If you would like an email when new posts are added, add your email below. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter: @BurnhamArts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *