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Building a Place of Conscience from a Place of Incarceration: The National Register Listing of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet

November 30, 2023 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Building a Place of Conscience from a Place of Incarceration

Over its long history, Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet (Old Joliet Prison) has been recognized for its iconic Gothic Revival architecture, made infamous by its many high-profile inmates, and become a fixture of popular culture through its references in movies, literature, and music. However, the Prison’s significance as a place of incarceration and a physical representation of the problematic and complicated history of Illinois’ prison system remains its most enduring legacy.

Explore this problematic and complicated history with Lara Ramsey, principal of Ramsey Historic Consultants and author of the Illinois State Penitentiary-Joliet National Register Historic District nomination, who will share research findings from this project on Thursday November 30th at 6:00 pm at the Joliet Area Historical Museum Auditorium.

The ISP-Joliet National Register Historic District was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation based on national standards used by every state. The ISP-Joliet National Register Historic District nomination shows how the ISP-Joliet is significant under National Register Criterion A in the Areas of Government and Social History as the oldest extant and longest-operating penitentiary in Illinois. Under the area of Government, the ISP-Joliet is a tangible reminder of the long and complex evolution of prison ideology within the State of Illinois, from the construction of the original ISP-Joliet complex in the 1850s and 1860s through 2002, when the Joliet Correctional Center finally closed its doors. Under the area of Social History, the ISP-Joliet is significant as a place of conscience that allows for a critical understanding of the experiences of incarcerated people—the conditions they faced, their struggles for autonomy in a tightly controlled system, and the impact that changing attitudes and philosophies on incarceration had on their daily lives. Throughout its history and most-strikingly in the last half of the 20th century, the ISP-Joliet also exemplifies the inequities within the criminal justice system that disproportionately affected communities of color.

Lara Ramsey remarked: “The National Register nomination for the ISP-Joliet provided a great opportunity to shine a light on the penitentiary’s historical significance through the lens of institutional and social history and to explore how the experiences of its incarcerated population evolved—or did not evolve—through the various philosophical shifts within the criminal justice system through the 19th and 20th centuries. Joliet is uniquely important because it is the only extant prison complex in Illinois that encompasses nearly the entire span of the state’s history of incarceration, from the early development of the Auburn system through the era of mass incarceration.”

This National Register nomination was funded by an Underrepresented Communities grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior through the Underrepresented Community Grant Program. The National Park Service’s Underrepresented Community Grant Program (URC) works towards diversifying the nominations submitted to the National Register of Historic Places. Projects include surveys and inventories of historic properties associated with communities underrepresented in the National Register, as well as the development of nominations to the National Register for specific sites. The City of Joliet, in conjunction with the Joliet Area Historical Museum, applied for and received this grant in 2021 with the goal of broadening understanding of the Old Joliet Prison as a place of incarceration and a physical representation of the problematic and complicated history of Illinois’ prison system.


November 30, 2023
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
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Joliet Area Historical Museum
(815) 723-5201
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Joliet Area Historical Museum
204 N Ottawa St
Joliet, IL 60432 United States
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(815) 723-5201
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