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Beauty in the Big House

Joliet Correctional Center, Illinois

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Beauty in the Big House

Joliet Correctional Center, Illinois

Beauty can be found in some strange places sometimes. Last Saturday, I spent over four hours in prison. It was a wet, cold and dreary day– just like you’d expect every day to be like at a correctional facility. The Joliet Correctional Center opened in 1858 and finally closed its heavy steel doors for the last time in 2002 due to budget cuts. Since then, people have broken into the prison to explore, take photos or vandalize. But in 2018, to raise money for the local museum, the prison has opened up for special history tours and photography. And that’s what brought me to Joliet in the middle of a downpour early on Saturday morning.

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Because the prison hasn’t been heated or air conditioned for the last sixteen years, the infrastructure is quickly deteriorating. Leaks in the roof have opened up and during wet or snowy weather, water streams into the interior, making its way down to the lowest floors, causing all sorts of structural damage. Everywhere you notice sheets of paint peeling down from the walls and ceilings, like dead leaves hanging on the tree on a late autumn day. Paint covers the floors everywhere.

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 At its height, the prison housed 1300 inmates and many notorious Chicago criminals spent time in Joliet over the years, including 1920s gangsters and serial killers. On a lighter note, the prison was featured in The Blues Brothers (1980) and in 1963, Bob Dylan penned a song about Joliet (Percy’s Song).

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Many men never made it out and died in Joliet, and more than a few people were murdered by inmates– including one early warden’s wife, in the days when the warden and his family still lived in the prison. But despite all the misery associated with prison life, everyone is gone now and the buildings and grounds are peaceful, slowly crumbling into decay, though it’ll take many more years before nature fully takes over.

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I found a lot of beauty in the deteriorating structures of Joliet Prison. Who would’ve guessed that peeling paint could be so beautiful? And because it was built in a day when even prison architecture could be attractive, there are a lot of touches a visitor can see that show the thought and care that went into the construction.

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Over the years, vandals have broken in (there’s a novel idea- breaking into a prison) and graffiti covers many walls, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine what life was like in its “heyday.” And time has really taken a toll on the infrastructure, with three floors in the administration building collapsing on top of each other in 2017. Black mold and toxic dust is a problem that can’t be ignored by the casual visitor. But you can still step into the prison cells where long-term residents spent years of boredom until their eventual release… or death. And standing in those tiny cells, it’s still not hard to imagine what life might have been like, surrounded by three block walls and a barricade of bars, afraid of your next door neighbors and everyone else, just putting in your time until you finally won your freedom.

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Most of the time, the corridors, stairways and heavy iron doors lie quiet now, their jobs finished. The prison hospital, with bars on every window, has long seen its last patient, though an x-ray machine and large operating room lights are still there. Rusted weights sit on the floor in the gym and a few cafeteria tables remain, along with most of the kitchen equipment to feed the inmates and staff. And shiny silver razor wire on the top of the walls looks like it was just installed yesterday.

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I thought my approach to photographing the prison would be to do it all in black and white, with a gritty feeling to my images. But I was surprised at how much color there was. Peeling paint revealed brightly colored walls, painted in the swinging 60’s or 70s. Pastel greens, blues and oranges were everywhere, along with some gaudy 1960’s wallpaper in the administration waiting area, where families and visitors would bide their time, waiting to see their incarcerated loved ones. My approach changed to look for patterns and colors in the peeling paint, focus on the beautiful architecture and highlight the details and colors of the decaying prison.

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Everyone’s gone now and the buildings and grounds of the Joliet Correctional Center are peaceful, except for the ghosts of the inmates that still haunt the hallways and cells. But there’s much beauty here, for those that look for it.

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[Camera: Pentax 645Z medium format with 28-48mm lens]